They’re calling it an educational tour, but you might add that it’s a history lesson, as well. And it’s one in which you will have a chance to listen and touch some of the people who helped bring about a change in Nashville and American society.
“Education is important in terms of people understanding where they have come from and the possibilities for a brighter future,” Dick Barnett, who is spearheading this particular tour that deals with race, economics and social behavior, told me recently.
Barnett, now in his 70s, is Tennessee State University’s all-time leading basketball scorer and played on the school’s teams that won a record three NAIA championships from 1957 to 1959. He also played for 15 years in the NBA — one of those with the 1971 world champion New York Knicks.
With this being homecoming week at TSU — and a celebration of the school being open for 100 years — Barnett and a few teammates are coming back to Nashville to let the public know through newspaper articles, photographs and testimonies not only the greatness of their teams but what it was like to help integrate this city.
They also plan to discuss the challenges and benefits of education and the importance of passing the baton of history from one generation to another.
“We want young people, especially, and regardless of who they are and where they come from, to know that things have not always been the way they are now,” Barnett said. “When we were at Tennessee State in the late 1950s, we could not walk downtown and sit at the lunch counters.
“Things have changed dramatically, but we still have plenty of work to do to make life better for everyone. You shouldn’t just take things for granted.”
Barnett and his teammates, along with their coach, the late, great John B. McLendon, were determined to be winners in a segregated society. They felt they could compete with anyone, given the opportunity. It was also TSU’s president at the time, Walter S. Davis, who believed in seeing that his student-athletes received not only a good education but a strong athletic program.
McLendon, who died in October 1999, was the first black head coach of a professional basketball team. He attended the University of Kansas and was an undergraduate student under James A. Naismith, who invented the game.