They are extinct institutions that used to be part of our culture and will always be a part of our history.
There used to be about 90 African-American high schools in Tennessee — as far southwest as Memphis and as far northeast as Kingsport. In their day, these institutions were known as negro high schools or colored high schools. Before integration, black students had no choice but to attend them — at least, if their parents wanted them to go to high school and had the resources to get them there.
The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education signaled the beginning of the end for Tennessee’s African-American high schools. It took about 15 years for high school integration to work its way to every corner of Tennessee. As it did, many of the black high school names vanished from the city directories, and black high school buildings were abandoned.
“They are an important part of our history and culture,” says Calvin Sneed, a native of Kingsport who helps organize an annual reunion of graduates of African-American high schools in the Tri-Cities area called the Great Golden Gathering.
Sneed maintains that American society is far better off with integrated high schools than it was with segregated ones. However, he says we should remember the names and stories of all-black high schools.
“We must accept the past and realize that it made us what we are,” he says. “These schools were just as important in the black community as churches were.”
I was recently surprised to find out that no one had ever compiled a list of Tennessee’s historically African-American high schools. With the help of alumni, history buffs and county historians, I created a list that I believe to be largely complete. In the process, I learned a lot about Tennessee history that I didn’t know and developed a new theory about why some counties have almost no black residents.
Here are some of the high points of my research:
The number of African-American high schools varied wildly by county. Shelby County had at least 14. Most counties had one. About 15 counties did not have a single African-American high school, which means that any black residents of that county had to make arrangements for their kids to go to high school in another county — or they simply didn’t send their kids to high school.
- Some of the buildings that used to house Tennessee’s African-American high schools are still in operation as integrated schools such as Manassas and Douglass high schools in Memphis. Bridgeforth Middle School of Pulaski is in a building that formerly housed the all-black Bridgeforth High School. The building that had been known as Carver High School in Dayton is now headquarters for the Rhea County School System.
- Most of the African-American high schools were named for prominent national or local heroes. (Tennessee had at least four high schools that carried the name Carver — in Shelby, Tipton, Maury and Rhea counties). However, many African-American high schools were simply called “training schools.” Thanks to the fact that its football team won 52 consecutive shutout games between 1942 and 1949, the Bedford County Training School is the best known of these institutions.
- Many of the best-known sports heroes in Tennessee history attended all-black high schools. Wilma Rudolph went to Clarksville’s Burt High School. Ed “Too Tall” Jones attended Merry High School in Jackson. Reggie White was an alumnus of Howard High in Chattanooga. Perry Wallace, the first African-American to play varsity basketball in the Southeastern Conference (at Vanderbilt), attended Pearl High in Nashville.
- Speaking of famous people, rock legend Tina Turner attended Carver High School in Haywood County. Stanley Scott, United Press International’s first black reporter, attended Industrial High School in Bolivar. The late syndicated columnist Carl Rowan went to Bernard High School in Warren County.
- Some African-American high schools drew only students from the nearby community or county. Some drew from several counties — especially counties that didn’t have their own black high schools. Burt High School in Clarksville drew students from Stewart County. Darwin High School in Cookeville apparently drew students from White, Clay and Overton counties. Campbell High School of Rockwood drew students from not only Roane County but also parts of Rhea, Bledsoe and Anderson. African-American students from Anderson County attended Knoxville’s Austin High School.
- About 15 of the high school buildings that used to house black high schools are still standing but are used for some other public use. The former Webb High School building in Carroll County is now a Head Start facility. The former Bridgeforth High School building in Pulaski is now Bridgeforth Middle School. Slater High School in Bristol is now a community center, as is Union High School in Gallatin. Several of these former high school buildings still in public use have a room devoted to the history of the all-black high school that was once there.
- Having said this, quite a few of the buildings that once housed African-American high schools are gone or abandoned. There is a plaque and a park in Cleveland at the former site of College Hill School, which burned down in 1966. The Fayette County Training School building is long gone. Just two years ago, the former McReynolds High School in South Pittsburg was burned by an arsonist.
Finally, here is an interesting point about the counties that didn’t have an all-black high school: Just about every county historian who hails from such a county will say that there weren’t enough African-American residents of the county to justify having one, and most of the time they are right. But there were counties in Tennessee that at one time had a lot more African-American residents than they do now—and their lack of a black high school may have had something to do with it.
The best example of this is Stewart County. In 1880, 2,757 (nearly 28 percent) of Stewart County’s 9,933 residents were black. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Stewart County never had a black high school even though several Tennessee counties that did (Cocke and Humphreys, for instance) had fewer black people than Stewart County.
Today, according to the U.S. census, Stewart County has fewer than 200 African-American residents — less than 1.3 percent of the population.
I suspect that the lack of a black high school isn’t the only reason that Stewart County’s black population has shrunk by more than 90 percent. But I believe it is a contributing cause.
List of African-American high schools now long gone
Webb High School in McKenzie
Chester County Training School in Henderson (also known as Henderson Colored High School)
Central High School in Alamo
Crowder High School in Parsons (originally known as Decatur County Training School)
Bruce High School in Dyersburg
Fayette County Training School in Somerville
- Gibson County Training School in Milan, which was later named Polk-Clark High School,
- Stigall High School in Humboldt,
- Rosenwald High School in Trenton
- Industrial High School in Bolivar
- Allen White High School in Whiteville
Carver High School in Brownsville
Montgomery High School in Lexington
Henry County Training School in Paris (also called Central High School)
Lincoln High School in Tiptonville
Lauderdale County Training School in Ripley
- West High School in Denmark (sometimes called Denmark High School)
- Merry High School in Jackson
- East High School in Jackson
McNairy County (Colored) High School in Selmer
Miles High School in Union City
- Carver High School in Memphis
- Douglass High School in Memphis
- Hamilton High School in Memphis
- Lester High School in Memphis
- Melrose High School in Memphis
- Manassas High School in Memphis
- Washington High School in Memphis
- Lester High School in Memphis
- Barret’s Chapel School in Arlington
- Woodstock Training School in Lucy
- Mt. Pisgah High in Cordova
- Harrold High School in Millington
- Geeter High School in Whitehaven
- Capleville High School in Capleville
- Frazier High School in Covington
- George Ellis High School in Munford
- Gailor Episcopal Industrial School in Mason
Weakley County Training School in Martin
Bedford County Training School in Shelbyville
Davidson Academy in Tullahoma
- Pearl High School
- Haynes High School
- Cameron High School
- Meigs High School (all in Nashville)
Hampton High School in Dickson
Townsend High School in Decherd
Bridgeforth High School in Pulaski
Dunbar High School in Savannah
O.H. Bernard High School in Centerville
Porch Reed High School in Waverly
Fayette Negro School in Fayetteville
Jones Training School in Lewisburg
- Carver-Smith School in Columbia
- Clarke Training School in Mount Pleasant
Burt High School in Clarksville
- Darwin High School in Cookeville
- Allgood High School in Allgood
Bransford High School in Springfield
Holloway High School in Murfreesboro
Turner High School in Carthage
Union High School in Gallatin
Ward High School in Hartsville
Bernard High School in McMinnville
Natchez High School in Franklin
Wilson County Training School in Lebanon
Scarboro High School in Oak Ridge
Hall High School in Alcoa
College Hill School in Cleveland
Lafollette Colored High School in Lafollette
Douglas High School in Elizabethton
Tanner High School in Newport
George Clem High School in Greeneville
West High School in Morristown
- Howard High School in Chattanooga
- Riverside High School in Chattanooga
- Washington High School in Chattanooga
Swift Memorial High School in Rogersville
Nelson-Merry High in Jefferson City
Austin High School in Knoxville
McReynolds High School in South Pittsburg
Cooke High School in Athens
High Point High School in Sweetwater
Carver High School in Dayton
Campbell High School in Rockwood
- Douglass High School in Kingsport
- Slater High School in Bristol
Langston High School in Johnson City