Last August, millions of StoryCorps listeners were riveted to Dr. William Lynn Weaver’s broadcast about his experiences as one of the 14 African-American students who integrated West High School in 1964. Weaver, chief of surgery at Fayetteville VA Medical Center in Fayetteville, N.C., spoke about the trauma and frustration of being abused and belittled by his teachers, and how he made it through with the help of his seventh-grade science teacher, the late Edward Hill. In the second part of the broadcast, in September, he talked about what it was like to play football against an all-white team under the blare of West’s anthem, “Dixie” and the prospect of nooses hanging from goal posts.
One person who heard Weaver’s story was moved in a very particular way. Ashley Jessie, principal of West High School, has made “OneWest” a rallying cry for diversity and excellence. She wanted Weaver to be celebrated and welcomed – 50 years after the fact – at West High School in Bearden.
He was skeptical. Not only had he not visited West High School, but he had refused to even drive near it on visits back home.
Principal Jessie was insistent, and she won him over. On Tuesday, March 27, 2018, Dr. William Lynn Weaver returned to West High School, accompanied by his wife, three of their children, and a half dozen of his friends and classmates. He met with students in small groups, met with parents and teachers, and addressed a school assembly after Mayor Madeline Rogero read a proclamation declaring it “Dr. William Lynn Weaver Day” in the city.
The proclamation read, in part, “Dr. Weaver’s invaluable perspective as a young African-American integrating Knoxville schools in 1964 has made an indelible mark on us and compels us to hear his words—’That’s what evil depends on: good people to be quiet’—and act on the side of justice and equity in our community.”
Weaver was born 68 years ago at Knoxville General Hospital. He has had a distinguished career as a surgeon and professor of surgery. He holds board certifications from the Southern Surgical Association and the American Surgical Association.
Addressing the assembly, Weaver remembered his time at the school. He did not sugarcoat his memories for the students.
“A group of knuckleheaded kids decided to come to West,” he said. A couple wanted to play football and knew West had the worst team out there. (Two of these friends went on to play college ball.). Another friend wanted to be an aerospace engineer and fly planes “at a time when there were no black bus drivers in Knoxville,” Weaver said.
In that same auditorium, every morning, he said, he and his friends walked under the Confederate flag mounted on the wall, heard “Dixie,” “the anthem of slavery,” and heard every adult around them tell them they didn’t belong.
“And that was the morning,” he said.
The African-American students all sat together in the middle of the auditorium, he said, pointing to their old spot. White students left the row behind them and the row ahead of them empty.
“This was the worst three years of my life,” he said.
He wanted students to take away from his experience.
“You must know your history so that you don’t repeat mistakes,” he said. It was important that they know that segregation happened. “You must know separate is never equal.”
He told students that often change comes from the tone set at the top, and that in the present day, West High students have adults around who will help them.
“You’ve got a great principal and a great mayor – not what mayors were like when I was growing up in Knoxville.” Of Jessie, he said, “This is a person who puts her energy into all the students in the school. This is a different West.”
He also wanted them to recognize the opportunities provided by West’s excellent academics. He said he passed organic chemistry in college only because of what he learned from his chemistry classes at West, bedeviled by a teacher who hated him.
Most important, he said, “What I want you to do is not tolerate bullies. Look to your left and to your right. Someone sitting near you right now is being bullied or excluded because of race, religion, sexual orientation or economic status. You can change that.” He urged students to reach out to others, to talk to them, to visit their homes and spend time in each other’s lives.
“Be a hero right now,” he told the students. “The world is a big place, but there is always room for good people.”