Former McGavock High School principal Jerry Mack Hargis was writing stories of his time in the Metro Nashville Public Schools system for a memoir writing class at Vanderbilt University when a professor’s suggestion ended up consuming the past six years of his golden years.
The stories Hargis submitted to the course were firsthand accounts of his history witnessing racial integration in Metro’s public schools during the 1980s. His professor thought Hargis’ stories were of a historical nature and should be preserved and even recommended the stories be published.
“The professor read a couple of my submissions, and then he stopped. He said, ‘You need to publish this. This is history, and if you don’t, it’s going to blow away with the wind.’ So, that got me to start thinking along those lines of writing a book,” said Hargis.
A former administrator, teacher, coach and school board member, Hargis completed his book of the integration process, illustrated by his personal journey, insight and firsthand experience witnessing the impact.
“It’s Not Always Black and White: Reflections of a High School Principal During Nashville’s Integration” is his insider’s perspective of the integration plan implemented by Metro public schools in 1970, only to see it reversed by a higher court in 1981 days before school started. The reversal resulted in school closings, teacher transfers and students bussed to schools miles away from home, said Hargis.
The stories contained in “It Isn’t Always Black or White,” many of them never shared before, took place during the court-ordered integration plan and the process of trying to educate students despite the chaos. Hargis’ reflections examine the experience of combining students from differing cultures, while striving for positive results for all, through personal stories.
“It was a complicated process,” said Hargis. “The unexpected changes put burdens on principals, teachers and staff, as they did their best in a time of uncertainty. Everybody sacrificed with this process in order to correct a wrong in our society that has been there forever, as far as we’re concerned. When you correct a wrong, somebody has to pay the price. This generation paid the price,” said Hargis.
The 79-year-old Madison resident said it took him five to six years to write the book. “English was not my strong suit,” he said.
“The computer would put a comma instead of a semicolon, and I would get in an argument with the computer,” said Hargis, laughing as he recalled the scenario.
He said there were also times he would set the project aside for a few weeks and tried using shortcuts to help write the book.
“I ordered a dictation device, and then I started moving pretty rapidly,” he said. “But after a little while, apparently the program did not lock in with Southern dialect. I’d read it and get the words in there, but then it took me twice as long to go back and re-read and correct the words,” he said.
Published by FultonBooks, his finished book is available at bookstores everywhere and online. Some former students are planning local book signings with Hargis in the near future.
Writing the book also allowed Hargis to reconnect with students and educators whom he spent time with during his tenure. On a return visit last week to his old McGavock High School campus, Hargis didn’t walk far before a faculty or staff member who recognized him as their former principal stopped him.
Secretary clerk Cheryl Hailey had a look of shock when she laid eyes on Hargis.
“Dr. Hargis, is that you?” she asked, lowering her facemask as if to help her get a better look. “Remember me? I was in your office one time to get the paddle as punishment,” said Hailey.
“You’re right, and I’m here to finish. Let me go get the paddle,” said Hargis.
English teacher Kim Minor excitedly jumped out of her seat and embraced Hargis with a big hug when she saw him enter the library. Minor was a DuPont High School student where Hargis was her principal.
“We were the class of 1984. We were your mischievous class,” Minor said proudly.
As the two reminisced, “Those were the best days of my life,” said Minor. “He loved his job. He was the best principal. Man, they don’t make them as good as him anymore.”
No doubt Hargis had a lot of students during his career, which spanned more than 25 years before he retired at 46 years old in 1988. He’s been married to Ann, a retired teacher, for 52 years. They have two daughters, Heather and Rachel. He said the family was supportive through the whole writing process, and Heather helped him a lot with proofreading and continued with help to market the book.
Hargis was born in Milan, a west Tennessee town near Jackson. He played basketball and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Memphis at Lambuth, completed his master’s degree at Middle Tennessee State University and earned his doctorate at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College.
After college, his goal was to coach. That’s all Hargis wanted to do was coach sports, he said. After moving to Nashville, he taught at an elementary school for one year before he landed his dream job at Litton Junior High School. There, he coached track, football and girls’ basketball, most of them championship-winning teams, for three years. He was promoted to Litton Senior High School, where he continued to coach football and basketball.
“Then, integration hit, and they closed Litton out,” said Hargis. That’s when his tour of duty through Metro schools began in earnest.
First, he was transferred to McGavock, where he coached for a little while and began focusing on administration out of necessity. As schools were phased out, Hargis knew there were many more coaches with seniority than there were coaching positions available, so he shifted his goals toward administration.
During integration, Metro schools were shuddered to satisfy the court’s order and achieve an 80%-20% white-to-black student ratio at the remaining schools, said Hargis.
Then, Hargis was sent to Cohn High School as principal, and it was phased out. He was transferred to DuPont in Hermitage, when it was a high school at the time, and it was phased out, too, he said.
Finally, “they sent me to Hillwood [High School,] and I phased myself out. I retired,” said Hargis.
During retirement, his father was stricken with cancer, and Hargis went to stay with him in west Tennessee for two months. During drives back and forth from Milan to Jackson for radiation treatments, Hargis tape-recorded the elder Hargis’ stories of old times.
Looking at a stack of cassette tapes of his dad’s stories, that was when the thought of writing a book first hit him. After getting his father’s permission to write a book about him “for the great-great-grandkids to read, I stumbled through the process without a publisher,” said Hargis. “Before he died in June 2002, that last Christmas, that book was the Christmas present he gave to all the kids.”
With his book, Hargis hopes his stories “would start developing a little forgiveness on both sides of the fence,” he said.
“I hope young adults read this book, so they can see what their parents contended with, and the youth will have more respect for their parents and the people in that generation, and maybe it’ll cause a little more of a binding between the races. That’s my hope. It would be a step in that direction,” said Hargis.