The purpose of a meeting of the Bradley County Cleveland African-American Historical Society on Thursday evening at Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church was to begin a charter membership drive.
Rev. Dr. Terril D. Littrell said in his opening remarks, “I want to be a charter member. When this old man has gone on to be with Jesus, I want the babies who are born in this community right now to go to the library and say, ‘Who was that old Caucasian man anyway?’ I want to be a charter member and I want my name to be in that book right along with yours.”
Cleveland State Community College history professor and society historian Bryan Reed said 85-year-old Helen Miller, who was in attendance, was the first black female principal in the city of Cleveland. She led Highland Elementary School, which might have been the first racially-mixed school in the city. The elementary school replaced College Hill after it burned. Miller taught in the school system from 1952 until she retired in 1987.
Reed, who is president of the Bradley County Historical and Genealogical Society, said his interest in local black history really began when he came upon the headstone of “Dr. S. L. Grant” while preparing for the annual tour of Fort Hill Cemetery.
He thought it would be nice to feature a doctor, but in his research, he discovered the marker was for Dr. Sarah L. Grant, the first black female doctor in Bradley County.
Grant was born into slavery and later became a doctor at the turn of the 20th Century.
“Thoughout the late 19th Century, she was among the first teachers of Bradley County for former slaves,” he said. “She ended up moving to Battle Creek, Mich., where she became a nurse and finally went to Meharry to become a physician.
“That was a wake up call for me. Just because you look at a grave and see a name, you can’t make any assumptions at all of who this person is.”
Since that time, Reed has been deeply involved in collecting as many artifacts as possible to preserve this history of African-Americans.
“At one time, there was a riverboat purchased by blacks in Bradley County to provide recreation to be able to sail up and down the Hiwassee River because in a segregated society they had to create their own entertainment,” he said. “They had to create their own institutions of learning. I never knew there was a black literary society in Cleveland, Tennessee.”
During opening remarks, Littrell said he “knew in my spirit we needed to organize an African-American historical society,” in 2006 when he retired from the clergy and moved back to Cleveland.
Littrell and his wife, Chloe, have been friends with the Rev. James and Linda Parris for many, many years and the two men worked together in the NAACP from 1975 to 1981.
“I knew the struggle. I understood the struggle,” said Littrell, who participated in the Civil Rights Movement in Kansas City, Mo., and St. Louis in the 1960s.
After the Littrells moved away in 1981, the two families began exchanging Christmas cards and have made it annual tradition spanning more than 30 years.
“Their cards were always first, so James and Linda Parris hold a special place in mine and my wife’s heart,” Littrell said. “One of the first people I contacted when I retired from the clergy in 2006 was brother Parris.”
Although Littrell felt the need to begin recording Black history in 2006, he was unsure how to start such a massive endeavor. On Oct. 15, 2009, the Littrells invited Parris, Avery Johnson and Harry Johnson to their home for a steak dinner and to share his vision.
“I mentioned my dream of having an African-American historical society organized in Cleveland, Bradley County,” he said. “There is a whole lot of good that needs to be recorded in a book.”
The goal of the historical society is to publish a book with as many pictures and biographies as possible.
“I have a vision of this, and I believe it will come to pass if its God’s will. We will have in Cleveland an African-American museum sponsored by the African-American Historical Society.
“You all are some of the best people my wife and I know,” he said to the 27 people who responded to invitations. “I wish more Caucasians knew you. I wish you knew more Caucasians.
“You know what it’s going to take? It’s going to take setting down at the table and eating with one another, getting acquainted with one another, being friends with one another, invite one another into our homes and treat one another like we are all equals in the sight of God, the way it’s intended to be, have respect and it will happen.”
On Jan. 11, 2010, the three friends expanded their circle and held an organizational meeting in Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church. They met again Aug. 22, 2011, to approve the organization’s by laws and constitution. The society also received its state charter.
Next, the made an addendum to the by laws by adding the office of parliamentarian and elected a slate of officers: Rev. Dr. Harry Johnson was elected president; Avery Johnson, vice president; Rev. James Parris, recording secretary; Adonia Latham, treasurer; Drew Robinson, legal adviser; Robert George and Bryan Reed are the historians, and Littrell is the parliamentarian.
For membership, please contact Rev. Dr. Harry Johnson at 423-479-4111, extension 113.