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Emmy-nominated documentary shows Cameron High School’s role in the civil rights movement.
Documenting historical moments adds a needed texture in cities like Nashville, to ensure their significance is not lost as growth moves through like a roaring lion. “The Past Is Prologue: The Cameron Class of 1969,” a documentary short about Cameron High School’s role in the civil rights movement, is a record of one such moment, and it will guarantee that a piece of South Nashville history will never be lost. The film — conceived by executive producers Tanya Coplen Gray, Deborah Majors Bell and Ida Venson Currie — is an homage to a school’s undeniable mark on Nashville and a lesson in the history of the fight for racial justice.
Located on First Avenue South near Lafayette Street, Cameron Middle School — formerly Cameron High School — now houses LEAD Academy, and carries a legacy in many Nashville homes. It’s named after professor Henry Alvin Cameron, an African American science teacher who fought and was killed in World War I. As I grew up, my mother, Ida Venson Currie, shared memories of her “blue and gold” days. But one memory stands out the most: the day that a sports event brought Cameron High School into the city’s civil rights movement.
On March 8, 1968, Cameron faced Strat- ford High School at Municipal Auditorium in the 18th District basketball tournament. This game would determine whether Cameron, an African American school, or Stratford, a white school, would go to the championship. Bad calls and blatant favoritism led to Cameron losing the game. Days later, one school board member alleged to have evidence of fights breaking out among spectators. To this day, Cameron students dispute that claim. But the Tennessee Secondary School Athletics Association suspended all interscholastic athletic competitions at Cameron for one year. Stratford was issued just a warning. It took a civil rights rally to get the attention of the city.
Gray, a classmate of my mother’s, wanted to honor their high school’s story. “I was already isolated in where I could go as a little Black girl in Nashville,” says Gray, “so the suspension was devastating. When you pull these activities from a school and it’s your senior year, it leaves very little for you to do. The students, parents and community rallied to support the school — including with a march down First Avenue — and lauded civil rights attorney Avon Williams Jr. brought the case to federal court.
Gray expressed her desire to document the event and its aftermath to my mother and classmate Bell in 2017, and they began to envision how their story would be told. The three women began meeting over food, fellowship and a love for their community as they set out on their journey. “It was the first time I felt like a second-class citizen,” says Bell, reflecting on when she heard about the Cameron suspension. It was enacted on April 4, 1968 — the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
The project took flight after they received funding from the Metro Arts Commission. They enlisted the help of filmmaker Mark Schlicher to direct and Lisa Venegas as a producer. Through their collective power with executive producers Gray, Bell and Currie, they assembled a mighty cast of people to bring the documentary to life through reenactments and interviews, including an appearance from rapper, actor, activist and spoken-word artist Rashad tha Poet.
“We were blessed to have students from LEAD Academy to McGavock High School who helped to make each scene real,” says Currie. “From the reenactment of the basketball game to the march down First Avenue to the Seay-Hubbard United Methodist Church where the gathering and brainstorming took place.”
“The Past Is Prologue” brings the producers’ fellow Cameron High School alumni into the storytelling, providing real-life ac- counts of a period in time that had a lasting impact on their lives. Set against a Nashville landscape not always seen, the documentary is a testament to what it means to champion a community and stand up for what is right. Originally released in 2019, “The Past Is Prologue” is currently nominated for a Midsouth Regional Emmy in the Documentary/Historical category.
“We wanted to honor the teachers, students and the people who helped us in school,” says Gray. “This is why we wanted to create the documentary.”
Check out our 24-hour screening of the The Past Is Prologue on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. Register to receive viewing link HERE.
Interested in receiving the limited edition DVD, purchase here.