LEBANON, Tenn. (WKRN) – Johnie Payton still visits the very classroom where she attended school as an elementary student at Market Street School.
“The boys sat over here, the girls sat here,” Payton remembered.
At the time, Market Street School was an all-black school.
“We had heat, we had a cafeteria, good cooks,” said Payton.
When Payton started high school, things weren’t as she expected.
“I went home after school and my dad was there and I said, ‘Dad, they don’t have a cafeteria there. Now, you know we got to eat. Come on now,’” said Payton.
“He said, ‘Ok.’ And, ‘What to do you think you are going to be doing?’ I said, ‘That yellow bus that passes by that house, I am going to go to that other high school.’ He said, ‘How do you think you are going to do that?’ I said, ‘I guess we are going to have to integrate the school,’” said Payton.
Payton’s father was friends with a prominent civil rights attorney of the time. He told her family to attempt to go to the school and if they weren’t allowed in, they would take the issue to court.
Payton’s classmates at the time knew what she was doing was risky.
“We just really didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know what they were going to have to go through,” said her former classmate and longtime friend, Hortense Love.
In 1963, Payton, 12 other students and some of their parents walked to the all-white high school to enroll in classes.
“The head of the board was out there and said, ‘You can’t come in,’” Payton recalled.
The group left the school, took the issue to court and won the case.
Within a few weeks, Payton and 12 other students became the first group of African-American students to integrate Lebanon High School.
Payton’s journey of breaking down barriers has continued throughout her entire life.
As a teacher, Payton won Educator of the Year.
“I was the first African-American to win that and so far the only one right now,” said Payton.
Payton now serves on the Wilson County School Board.
“I think of the school that we walked to, 13 of us, that we integrated in 1963, I am now the board member of that particular school,” said Payton.
Payton told News 2 her journey in education is far from over, and she continues to look forward to what is next.