Celebrating Black History Month: Iridell Groves was a Mother Who Led the Way

Oral History Available in the Library’s Special Collections

Iridell and Erroll Groves, First Day of Nashville Desegregation (Photo: Jimmy Holt, Tennessean)

Iridell and Erroll Groves (center) walk to Buena Vist School on the first day of desegregation in Nashville, circa 1957. (Photo: Jimmy Holt, Tennessean)

By BEN THOMAS and ED BROWN

On the wall of the Civil Rights Room, housed in Nashville Public Library’s (NPL) Main Library, hangs a tribute to a moment that changed history forever.

In the center of a black and white photo, a black mother and her little boy are holding hands as they walk to school. A white woman stands on the steps in their path, arms folded. 

The date is Monday, Sept 9, 1957 — the first day of school desegregation in Nashville. Iridell Groves’ son, Erroll, is about to become one of the first African American students to enroll at Buena Vista School.

As Iridell and Erroll turned the corner onto 9th Avenue that morning, they found a mob waiting for them. Iridell remembers that, “Really, I didn’t think it was going to be like it was. I didn’t think the people were going to be there like they were … people were everywhere. Just everywhere.” 

But she refused to be intimidated. 

Iridell turned to Erroll and told him, “We’re going to school.” 

Taking his hand, the pair kept walking.

“They didn’t want to let us in, but … I just put Erroll in front of me and I went in behind him, and just went on through the doors,” Iridell said.

As she led her son through the front doors, Iridell and Erroll blazed a path for thousands of Nashville children to follow.

Asked fifty years later if she’d make the same choice again for her son, Groves didn’t hesitate to answer. “Yes,” she said. “I’d do it all over again.”

In May 2006, Iridell and Erroll visited the Main Library to tell their story. In conversation with author and journalist John Egerton, who famously covered the Civil Rights Movement, their interview was recorded and transcribed for the Civil Rights Oral History Project

The collection chronicles the tragedies and triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement through the voices of those who lived it.

Join NPL as we celebrate Black History Month with the Nashville Community. Visit the Civil Rights Room, and hear the Groves’ story for yourself.

The library’s events calendar has details for great events happening in celebration of Black History Month at your nearest library location.

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