Nashville Public Schools Desegregation Icon, Louise Watson, Dies at 99

Mary Louise Watson Photo submitted

NASHVILLE, TN — Mary Louise Watson, who along with 11 other families desegregated six all white schools in 1957 Nashville, has died. She was 99 years old.

The Nashville Public Schools desegregation icon passed quietly and without fanfare in her sleep Monday with her daughter, Barbara Jean, by her side. It is the same daughter who was by her side in 1957 when the two, again quietly and without fanfare, bravely walked into Jones Elementary School in North Nashville, desegregating it.

The Watsons were among the 11 of 126 eligible families that would integrate the schools. Despite numerous threats from her own white neighbors – that Barbara Jean would be kidnapped and that the Watson family home would be burned, Mrs. Watson was determined to provide her daughter with the best education possible. “Keep teaching, is the bottom line, you want to keep teaching that this is the better way. Teach people to love and respect everybody, not just some. Love everybody,” was her mantra.

In explaining to a reporter why she took the risk, Mrs. Watson said: “I wanted my children to have a good chance to succeed, the same as everybody else. Segregation never helped nobody. I hope what we did back then has made a little bit of a difference. I am glad I made the effort anyway. While we’ve come a long way since 1957, there is still a lot of work to do.”

Mrs. Watson’s contributions to Nashville’s Civil Rights Movement were chronicled in 2009 in the late John Egerton’s article called “Walking Into History: The Beginning of School Desegregation in Nashville.” She is also enshrined in the video film “A Child Shall Lead Them,” moderated by the late John Seigenthaler. That video is housed in the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room. Her many honors include the Prestigious Freedom Sister Award given by the Ford Motor Company in 2010.

Mrs. Watson’s final services, “A Celebration of Life with Friends and Family,” were held on Thursday, December 20, 2018, at the Fourteenth Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, her home church for 61 years.  

For More Information Call Gwendolyn Watson at 615-613-7249

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