PBS film tells the 80-year story of Rogersville's Swift College

Curator and school alumnus Stella Gudger, is shown at the Swift College Museum at the Price Public community Center near where the school college campus was located. Photo by Jeff Bobo.

ROGERSVILLE — It’s been 60 years since the old Swift College closed, and more than 50 years since the main facility, which was converted into a segregated high school until 1964, was demolished.

The youngest surviving graduates of Rogersville’s former all African American College are well into their 80s, and many of the high school’s last graduating class will turn 70 this year.

That’s why Class of 1960 Swift High School alumni Stella Gudger was so adamant that the surviving Swift graduates have a chance to tell their stories.

Today Gudger is curator of the Swift College Museum located within the Price Public Community Center near where the Swift campus was located.

For the past year filmmaker William Isom II has been interviewing former Swift students, scanning their old photos, and their compiling stories — the product of which will be broadcast on East Tennessee PBS on Satruday, Feb. 28 at noon.

“The Swift Story” — produced and directed by Isom II — focuses on the history of Swift College, its students, and their experiences in a segregated, all black college in the south for more than 70 years.

“We started this a year ago because, frankly, all of these people who attended Swift are dying off,” Gudger said. “We needed to compile these stories before it’s too late, and make sure these stories are preserved for future generations.”

Aside from airing on PBS, The Swift Story will also be played on a loop at the museum for visitors, particularly the school field trip classes that come to the museum.

The museum is located in the former Price Public School.

Today its a community center, but for decades Price Public Schools was Rogersville segregated, all black K-12 school located across Hasson Street from the Swift campus.

“When students come to the museum a lot of them are surprised by what they learn here,” Gudger said. “What surprised me was that a lot of people in our own community don’t know about Swift and the important role it played in the history of Rogersville.”

In 1883, the first African-American graduate of Maryville College, Rev. William H. Franklin, established an institution of higher learning for newly emancipated blacks.

Isom said Swift Memorial Institute in Rogersville became a beacon of higher education in the rural south.

“The untold story of Swift Memorial Institute provides a more intricate and well-rounded view of East Tennessee's historic narrative,” Isom said. “When we preserve, restore, and celebrate knowledge of the cultural and economic contributions made by members of the Black community in East Tennessee, we change the narrative and help foster more positive, just and equitable interactions between the diverse groups of people for whom East Tennessee is home.”

The Swift Story is told through newly discovered photographs, letters and documents, as well as interviews with Gudger; Lester Layman, author of Blacks in Tennessee; Dr. Bobby Lovett, author of America’s Historically Black Colleges: A Narrative History 1837-2009; Dr. Tom Bogart, President of Maryville College; as well as Swift Memorial Institute alumni and Rogersville residents.

Ten years after the school's founding, the academy's first structure was actualized and named in honor of the Reverend Elijah E. Swift, president of the Board of Missions for Freedmen and pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Pennsylvania.In 1901, because the state's legislative body enacted a statute that closed Maryville College's doors to African Americans, the school's board of trustees voted to convey $25,000 of its endowment to Swift Memorial Institute.

Under President Franklin's leadership, the school experienced growth and prosperity.

Franklin retired at the end of the 1926 academic year, and he was succeeded by the Reverend Dr. C. E. Tucker, pastor of the Leonard Street Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga,

During the next decade Swift Memorial College became Swift Memorial Junior College. As a junior college, the school flourished and continued its mission of providing an education to students from Tennessee and other southern states.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the National Board of Missions began reassessing the feasibility of operating the twenty schools located in the South, and in 1952 discontinued its support for Swift.

In 1955, Swift Memorial Junior College closed. The boys' dormitory was used by the Hawkins County Board of Education as a segregated public high school until 1964, when Hawkins County schools were desegregated.

Today the old Swift campus is owned by Hawkins County Schools, and the college president’s home is used as the district’s Central Office.

Isom added, “The Swift Story shows what we can achieve together when we act boldly and in the interest of the most vulnerable of our neighbors.”

The Swift Story is made possible thanks to financial support from the Tennessee Arts Commission, Eastman Chemical Company, US Bank and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

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