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Robert "Bobby" Cain Jr. (1939-)

Bobby Cain became the first African American student to graduate from a public formally segregated white high school in Tennessee during the immediate controversial years of integration following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Today he considers it "a great honor--a great achievement," but on August 27, 1956, when Clinton High School opened as a desegregated school, Cain did not feel heroic. The only black senior eligible to graduate, he knew segregationists meant to stop him from achieving a high school diploma. David J. Brittain, Clinton High School principal in the 1950s, recognized the danger of allowing Cain to go through the graduation ceremonies and feared for his life. To protect Cain, Brittain organized a student patrol. Cain's proud father and mother accompanied him to the ceremony, but he had to go alone to change into his cap and gown. At that point, the student patrol acted as Cain's protection from would-be attackers. Bobby Cain graduated with his class.

In 1961 Cain graduated from Tennessee State University with a bachelor's degree in social work. He later completed course work toward a master's degree. After college graduation he was employed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory before being drafted into the army. He later enlisted in the reserve system, from which he retired after twenty-one years with the rank of captain.

Now a supervisor with the Tennessee Department of Human Services in Nashville, Cain is more willing to talk of his experiences after years of reticence. His wife Margo and their daughter Yvette Yolanda, a Nashville attorney, first learned the details of his achievement from others. In his view, the strong support of family and school encouraged him to stand fast in the fight for school desegregation in Tennessee.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010