NOTE: This introduction to a later draft of Moses Freeman’s 1983 interview of Clarence B. Robinson is from the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library (http://www.lib.Chattanooga.gov). It is reproduced here as an additional resource - please understand that it is not part of the official contents of the C.B. Robinson Collection at Tennessee State University’s Brown-Daniel Library. We thank the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library for granting permission to reproduce it here.
This is an interview with the Honorable Clarence Bernard Robinson [born on February 4, 1911], a retired educator and a member of the Hamilton County delegation in the Tennessee General Assembly. Mr. Robinson, for over forty years, has distinguished himself as a professional in the field of education as a teacher and principal and has been at the forefront in various teacher organizations, including the Chattanooga Educational Association and the American Federation of Teachers organizations which have worked to improve the quality of education in our city school system. Most notable were his works in the early forties and fifties in achieving equalization of teacher salaries regardless of race and a tenure law in our city that guaranteed teachers security from unfair termination without due process.
Additionally, Mr. Robinson has worked to insure equality of access to public facilities in Chattanooga, having led the fight to open up the Chattanooga Public Library to black citizens in the early 1950s. Mr. Robinson also was a leading force in efforts to desegregate public facilities such as restaurants, buses and movie theaters to blacks and worked as a leader in the creation and development of the James A. Henry Branch of the Y.M.C.A.
Recently Mr. Robinson was honored for his untiring work by having a bridge over the Tennessee River named in his honor.
Mr. Robinson has been very active in promoting the causes of the underdog and eliminating unjust and unfair practices, simultaneously striving to create peace and harmony among blacks and whites and developing Chattanooga as a city where all can live without fear or malice.
Mr. Robinson remains very active today in the civic affairs of our city in spite of continuous ill health. The interview was conducted by Moses Freeman over a period of several days in April 1983.
NOTE: This document was donated by Clarence Robinson and is part of The C.B. Robinson collection in the Special Collections Dept. of Tennessee State University’s Brown-Daniel Library.
Freeman: Let’s start out with your mother and your father.
Robinson: My mother’s name was Leona Ester Robinson, her nickname “Katie”; my mother was a twin whose brother’s name was Leonard Vester Reed; her maiden name was Reed. My father’s name was Lewis Cornilious Robinson.
Freeman: Do you remember anything about them?
Robinson: My father was born...[COMMENT UNAVAILABLE]...east of Missionary Ridge immediately behind – most people always talk in terms of “down back of Brock’s or Collier’s mansion.” My daddy was born in that area adjacent to the Pleasant Garden Cemetery. His mother was Julia Robinson, and his grandmother who is my great-grandmother was the one that possibly purchased that property, her name was Mary Addison. That property – my grandmother, my father’s mother was born right in that area in 1854.
Freeman: Your grandmother?
Robinson: Yeah on my daddy’s side was born there right by -- in that area of Missionary Ridge in 1854. That was before the end of slavery. According to the records at the courthouse that property on which my daddy was born had been in that family since 1870. It’s been listed as a matter of record since 1870.
Freeman: Is that the Pleasant Garden property?
Robinson: No, the property that we call – that was my daddy’s home spot which is adjacent, immediately south of Pleasant Garden Cemetery is where that property was. It's listed as in the name of Roberts -- no, it's Mary Addison. It was listed under Mary Addison's name, and it was purchased later in the names of Robertson; it's been in the name of Robertson since 1870. Although I go under the name of R-O-B-I-N-S-O-N because that's the way the teachers spelled our name, my daddy's name was Robertson R-O-B-E-R-T-S-O-N. On my grandmother's tombstone it says “Julia Robertson.” But the teachers told us when we came to Orchard Knob in the first grade that they knew how to spell Robertson, and it was R-O-B-I-N-S-O-N. In 1925 my daddy changed the spelling of his name to Robinson in order to help us clear our school records. So somewhere on some of our birth certificates, or on his death certificate when we got his birth certificate, why they had to say “Lewis Robertson” alias “Robinson.” On my birth certificate -- my birth certificate says “Clarence Bernard Robertson.” I was born in what at that time was known as Hornesville.
Freeman: Is that in Chattanooga?
Robinson: Yes. The more sophisticated name of Hornesville is now Eastdale. Yeah, Gene Turner and I, I think, are two of the people that I know whose birth certificate says Hornesville. And Hornesville came about because of the community store that was owned by Mr. Horne. The store was between Tunnel Boulevard and Rockwood Drive, I'll say Moss Street, so most people happen to know that Moss Street.
Freeman: Rockway Drive was Moss Street.
Robinson: No. Rockway Drive is one block before you get to Moss Street, and I was born on Rockway Drive. But I said Rockway Drive and Tunnel Boulevard, so you would get the proximity of where the Horne store was on the north side of Shallowford Road. And that whole community took the name after the Horne store because that's where everybody went on the weekends, on Saturdays, and around to shoot the breeze. And eventually they built another store up on the next corner, there at Rockway Drive and Shallowford, and it was Haggard's store. Those were the two stores where everybody went during the weekend and at various time. But the whole area was called Hornesville; then I don't know when they started calling it Eastdale nor why. But when I was small and growing up it was Hornesville.
Freeman: Was that store a black store or white store?
Robinson: It was a white store.
Freeman: Were there a lot of blacks living out there then?
Robinson: There were quite a few blacks living in that area. Now all --I'd say practically all of Foxwood Heights, what we know as Foxwood Heights now, and all along Greenwood Road and Line Street and South Street, all of that was black. Agnes Lauderdale's grandfather, Mr. Andy Hayes, owned most of the property that is in the eastern part of Foxwood Heights. And just as you clear through the tunnel there at Wilcox Boulevard, all of that property right in there was a part of estate or farm of Mr. Bell who was the stepfather of the Fenns who were prominent ?? Charlie Fenns and that group of Fenns who...[COMMENT UNAVAILABLE]...lived down on Arlington Avenue. And then there were eighty to a hundred acres that was immediately back of the Ridge Church that is on the Shallowford Road, the black church that's now on Shallowford. There were eighty acres immediately back of there that was owned by a Mr. Copeland who was black. That's Charles Holder's granddaddy.
Freeman: Mr. Copeland?
Robinson: Copeland, yeah.
Freeman: Charles Holder's granddaddy.
Robinson: Charles Holder's granddaddy.
Freeman: He owned about a hundred acres --
Robinson: Between eighty and a hundred acres directly behind the Ridge Church which took in a part of what is now the exclusive section of Foxwood Heights where it's still predominantly white families in that area. That's a --
Freeman: What's that Ridge Church you're talking about?
Robinson: Missionary Ridge Baptist Church, yes. And then over on Rockway Drive where I lived, there was a Burton family, the Farris family which on my mother's side I'm a descendant of the Farris family. That was my mother's stepfather's name, he was a Farris. And then immediately north of that section there, you had the whole section of Antioch which most –- a large number of Negroes. That's where the Lockes came from, and Luke Smith and Kermit Smith and all them came from over there. Frank Burton and all that came from right around in that little area that I lived in. Then there was a Putman family down there where Wilcox and Tunnel Boulevard intersects, and I think there were about eighteen black children in that family. So then -- and then where Ridgeside is at the present time, what we know as Ridgeside community, that was a dairy section there, no houses in there, only one or two. And down near Tunnel Boulevard and Ridgeside Road there was a house up on top of that hill, and that was the Mitchel family homeplace. Marjorie Parks' mother -- that's where they came from up on that side of the hill.
Freeman: They were black?
Robinson: They were black. And on the south side of Ridgeside Road from the third house below Seminole Drive all the way down to Tunnel Boulevard, all of those were black. There were the Farrises, the Priors and the Garners ?? no they weren't Garners, they were -- oh yeah Garners, Russell Goode's granddaddy, that's where Alberta and all of them grew up right there on the corner of Ridgeside Road and Rowe Road. And that house that those whites live in right now is a remodeled house that Alberta grew up in, and where you turn to go back in there to the cemetery.
Robinson: See then the Russells and them lived in the first house back of that. The way they got them off of that, they built them a new bungalow house back there in exchange for their property on that corner there to get the blacks off of the front. Then that big kind of yellow stucco house up there where Shepherd lived, that was John Farris' house. If you'll recall George Price that worked for the police department, that was George Price's great uncle; that's where they all came from out of there. And also that Mr. Farris was a brother to Traughber's great-grandmother, Miss Lottie. So then when you get down there around about Germantown and the Rogers Road, all that area in there was Known as Johnsonville. And you know on Sundays the people from Johnsonville would come ?? they all came to the Ridge Church, and from all of those various little sections there, and the Ridge Church was the center. And right beside the Ridge Church, Missionary Ridge Baptist Church, right beside to the west, immediately west of it was where the county school was. When Copeland gave them that property in the back down there, it was to -- Mr. Shepherd had started the Ridgeside subdivision, and it was -- this was to move the blacks off of the Shallowford Road. Now all of that property -- and immediately west of the County school which went through the eighth grade at that time -- all of that property that’s on the Shallowford Road now, went west of the Missionary Ridge Baptist Church, blacks lived in there. And it was owned by the Chattanooga-Chickamauga Baptist Association. Then next to that piece where they had their property, next to there was Mr. William Warren. I don’t know if you ever remember Mr. William Warren. He was a railway mail clerk who lived on the West Side on the corner of Cypress and West Tenth. And when he died, he died at 1910 Oak Street; his widow is still there. That’s where Mr. Warren –- and he was the principal of the school.
Freeman: The county school?
Robinson: Yeah, he was principal of the county school.
Freeman: So that county school that was next to the Missionary Ridge Church was a black school.
Robinson: Was a black school, yeah.
Freeman: Now, that was not Chattanooga, was it?
Robinson: That was the county, Hamilton County. Yeah. See all of that at that time –- see at that time Chattanooga stopped at Central Avenue, and that was known at that time as East End Avenue, and that’s where the city stopped. Even this section out in here was not a part of the city, and the county school in this area was Lincoln High School and Orchard Knob Elementary School, both of which were county schools at that time. That was prior to 1926 when this part out in here became a part of the city of Chattanooga.
Freeman: Let’s go back to your father. What did he do?
Robinson: My father, when I was small, was a butler for the Collier family on Missionary Ridge, who at that time lived in that big white mansion right in the center of Missionary Ridge. And I think they had ?? I don't know whether it was minerals -- I don't know -- I think there was some gold or rights that they had somewhere in the west and some other things, and that was the source of their money. Then when my father left as a butler, he started working as a cleaner for Mertin's Dry Cleaner at –- down on Market Street. The Mertins found that he was a little alert and had some knack for spotting, getting spots out of clothes, and so they had some kind of workshop in books and things that they put him through, and he became what they call a “French spotter.” And the rise of Mertin's Dry Cleaning Company during those years when people all carried their clothes to Mertin's because if they went through Mertin’s and they were inspected and came out of Mertin's without spots and things on them, well then that was the thing that built Mertin's business. Well, my dad was behind that. He never received pay commensurate to what he was able to do, and he never would leave them because they did give him the job and supplied the house in which we lived. When he was offered money to go to other dry cleaners, he wouldn't go, and even Mr. Cliff Mertin who was Mr. Mertin's son tried to get my dad to come to Pennsylvania and work for him, and he was going to double the salary that his dad was paying him down here at Mertin's to come to Pennsylvania. But he wouldn't shift, and he stayed at Mertin's until he passed -- maybe a few months before he passed. He retired at one point, but he hadn’t conditioned himself for retirement, so he went back and they permitted him to come back to work a few hours a day, so that he could get himself adjusted. And six months after he finally came off with retirement at age seventy-five, he died.
Freeman: About what time period did he start working for Mertin's?
Robinson: He started working for Mertin's round about 1917 or '18, somewhere right in there.
Freeman: Do you know Mr. Mertin's first name? But it was Mertin Dry Cleaning.
Freeman: Where was it located?
Robinson: On Market Street between Second Street and the river. When
Mr. Mertin stopped personally managing the dry cleaning plant, his son-in-law, Mr. Chamberlain, I can't think of what Mr.
Chamberlain's first name was, but Mr. Chamberlain was -- well all of his boys are in real estate business, and the Chamberlain
family real estate company now is still owned by, I think, his
youngest son. But those were Mr. Mertin's daughter's children.
Freeman: Now what did your mother do?