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magazine home > archives > winter 2005 > features

A former U of M professor recalls days of old in Memphis and at the U of M.

Blast from the Past
by Greg Russell


Former U of M instructor Thomas D. Clark

At age 101, former U of M instructor Thomas D. Clark has seen a lot in his life. Much of the history he has taught throughout his years as a professor comes from actually living through an incident. And none may be as infamous as a situation that occurred in Memphis in 1955 that captured national headlines.

Clark was presiding over the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association (SHA) when what he terms "a stormy situation" broke out.

"There was a black historian, Benjamin May, who was to speak during the association's meeting," Clark says. "Well, none of the waiters would serve him a meal because of his race. And several people came over from Arkansas to disrupt his talk."

May and another African-American, John Hope Franklin, were not allowed to register at the headquarters hotel, The Peabody. SHA officers, including Clark, who was presiding over the meeting, negotiated a compromise that allowed the African-Americans to take part in the panel. They were not allowed, though, to attend the social events provided to other registrants.

Clark says novelist William Faulkner, May and Franklin were at the meeting to serve as panelists to talk about racial desegregation.

"When Benjamin spoke, it was so eloquent," the historian recalls.

Clark returned to Memphis last November to take part in the SHA's 2004 annual meeting, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Another purpose of the meeting was to recognize the 1955 incident.

Clark 's recollection of the event is just one of his many memories of Memphis - his anecdotes of what was then West Tennessee State Teachers College often stretch the imagination.

He says that the year he taught here, 1930, was a "simpler, but harder" time.

"I came to Memphis in 1930 with absolutely no money," says Clark, a resident of Lexington, Ky. "That was a year after the stock market had crashed and was at the onset of the Great Depression - times were very hard, everyone was feeling the pinch. I was in graduate school at Duke at the time, needed some money to finish up and Memphis had an opening. My teaching job there - the first one I ever had - was a life saver."

Clark taught at Memphis during the summer session, years before he would become known as one of the preeminent historians of Kentucky. In 1969 the Kentucky state legislature named him Commonwealth historian laureate for life, and in 1990, he was named "a state treasure." He served as chair of the History Department at the University of Kentucky from 1942 to 1965, retiring completely in 1968.

Thomas with history profs Fickle and Crawford
At left, U of M history professors Dr. James Fickle (left) and Dr. Charles Crawford (right) helped Clark relive his days at the U of M with a tour of campus. At right, memorabilia from 1930 - the year Clark taught at the University.

"I have so much sentimental regard for that institution (Memphis)," says Clark, who was born in Louisville, Miss. "I remember coming up and getting off the train at a place called Buntyn. There were very few buildings on campus - a central building (Administration), a dorm (now Scates Hall) to the right of the central building and the library (now Brister Hall) to the left. I lived in the dorm and taught all my classes in the central building."

Clark 's classroom duties included geography, political science, and European and American history. "I remember my knees were wobbly the first time that I stepped into a classroom," he recalls.

But it was a course he didn't teach that gave him his biggest scare.

"The president of the school at the time, everyone just called him Mr. Brister, called me into his office early on - I thought I was going to get fired. He told me that the person he had hired to teach children's literature didn't show up. He asked me to teach it, but I told him I had never heard of children's literature. And that's what got me out of it."

Clark recalls working with Nellie Angel Smith, whom he described as the school's "very strict" disciplinarian.

"She required a professor to stay in the library at night to make sure no hanky-panky was going on," says Clark with a laugh. "That and taking chapel attendance were some of my responsibilities."

One incident with Smith in particular stands out in Clark's mind.

"It was a very hot summer in 1930 and I recall that the male students were in revolt - Nellie was requiring them to wear coats and ties," he says. "The students laid their coats on the ground. It was at this point I realized I wasn't a student any longer because I couldn't join them."

Clark lived in the dorm with Andy Holt, who later became president of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

The much-noted historian was born in Mississippi in 1903, and it was while he was working at a golf course in Oxford in the 1920s that he became friends with Faulkner.

"Bill Faulkner was a golfer," says Clark. "He was interested in playing and in keeping up the course. He would rake the greens and clean the fairways. For three years he would come and go - I did not realize he was going to New Orleans to meet up with a literary group. This was before he became famous.

"Sometimes Faulkner was cordial, sometimes quiet. You couldn't ever tell what kind of mood he was in."

Today, Clark continues to write and lecture.

"I will always remember Memphis as the place I got my start," Clark says.


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