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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
Scopes Trial by Henry Billings, Tennessee State Museum, 2012.38
By Grace Allen
In 1925, Tennessee passed the Butler Act. This was the first law in any state that said schools were not allowed to teach evolution. In that same year, a man named John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee. During the trial, a famous lawyer named Clarence Darrow defended Scopes. William Jennings Bryan, a well-known politician, argued against Scopes. The case attracted a lot of attention and was soon called the trial of the century. You might have heard about the Scopes trial before, but here are a few interesting facts you probably didn’t know.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) paid for it
The ACLU published an ad in the Chattanooga Daily Times offering to defend and finance any teacher willing to test the law and take it to court. Their goal was to ensure freedom from religion in education. Though Scopes was the person charged with breaking the law, the trial really wasn’t about him.
The trial was really about tourism
Leaders in Dayton saw the ACLU ad in the paper and knew a trial about evolution would attract lots of attention. Dayton was a small town and the city and businesses struggled to make enough money. They thought the tourism the trial would bring could be a great way to make money. A few leaders asked John Scopes if they could charge him with teaching evolution in order to bring the case to Dayton. It was just as much about the spectacle as anything else. There were six blocks of booths where people sold stuffed monkeys, food, and played music.
Chairs and Table from Robinson’s Drug Store where Leaders of Dayton and John Scopes met, Tennessee State Museum, 2019.85.1
John Scopes was a substitute teacher
Scopes was a football coach and science teacher, but he didn’t teach biology. He was filling in as a substitute biology teacher when he taught out of a biology textbook that included evolution. After the trial, Scopes even said he couldn’t remember if he had actually taught evolution. Since the trial was more about testing the law and creating tourism for Dayton, he and other witnesses acted as if he had taught it.
It was the first trial ever broadcasted live
The Chicago-based radio station WGN brought the latest equipment to Dayton in order to broadcast every word. People listened to the trial from all over the country. It cost WGN over $1000 a day! Currently, that would be around $14,000 a day! Telegraphs, telephones, and platforms for cameras were also installed for reporters.
Print of Rhea County Court House with WGN microphone and camera in back corner, Tennessee State Museum, 2016.73.2
At the end of the trial, the jury decided unanimously that Scopes was guilty of breaking the law. Scopes was given a $100 fine. Even though Bryan fought against Scopes, he offered to pay the fine. The case was more about testing the law than punishing a teacher. The ACLU also offered to pay the fine. In the end, no one had to pay the fine. The case went to the Tennessee Supreme Court two years later and the fine was dismissed.
Though Scopes was found guilty, people disagreed over which side really won. Many people who listened to the trial on the radio believed Scopes’ lawyer, Clarence Darrow, made the best argument. Others who were there in person saw the trial as a win for anti-evolutionists because of the guilty verdict. At the end of the trial, Clarence Darrow asked the jury to find Scopes guilty so they could take the case to the State Supreme Court. He hoped the State Supreme Court would decide the Butler act was unconstitutional and throw it out. The ACLU lost in the Supreme Court two years later and the Butler Act stayed in place until 1967. Many textbooks published after the trial left out evolution, but the Butler Act was never enforced again.
Evolution – The theory that people and other living things come from earlier species that changed over a long time.
Tourism – Businesses and organizations that support and encourage visitors on vacation.
Broadcast – To send a program over the radio, in this case the trial.
Unanimous – When everyone agrees, when no one votes differently.
Verdict – The result of the trial whether innocent or guilty.
Unconstitutional – A law that does not agree with the State or Federal Constitution which is the highest law.
What did John Scopes teach?
Why did people from Dayton want to attract tourism?
Why do you think people wanted to test the law?
Why do you think this trial captured attention across the nation
Follow this link to read the interactive timeline of the Scopes trial done by the Rhea County Heritage and Scopes Trial Museum. Explore the webpage for more information and pictures of the trial.
Grace Allen is an educator for the Tennessee State Museum.
2.22 Recognize that Tennessee has a constitution, which is the basis for our state’s laws.
2.05 Recognize major U.S. industries and their products, including: agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, transportation, etc.
US.36 Describe the Scopes Trial of 1925, including: the major figures, two sides of the controversy, the outcome, and legacy.
TN.49 Analyze how the Scopes Trial reflected societal tension between tradition and modernity.