Thursday, April 2

African-American High Schools Now Long Gone

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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 faculty of Stigall High School appears in John Ashworth’s 1952 West Tennessee Educational Conference yearbook.

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.


Bill Ligon, left, and Bill Carey discuss Ligon’s years at Union High School in Gallatin.

“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:

  • Is a newspaper ad promoting a football game between Holloway High School and Davidson Academy.

    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.


They pass a display case of mementos telling the history of the African-American high school, which today houses a cultural center and Head Start program.

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.


Bill Carey and Bill Ligon explore class photos and yearbooks at Union High School in Gallatin.


Every year, alumni from African-American high schools in the Tri-Cities area of East Tennessee gather for a reunion called the Great Golden Gathering.


List of African-American high schools now long gone

WEST TENNESSEE

Carroll County:
Webb High School in McKenzie

Chester County:
Chester County Training School in Henderson (also known as Henderson Colored High School)

Crockett County:
Central High School in Alamo

Decatur County:
Crowder High School in Parsons (originally known as Decatur County Training School)

Dyer County:
Bruce High School in Dyersburg

Fayette County:
Fayette County Training School in Somerville

Gibson County:

  • Gibson County Training School in Milan, which was later named Polk-Clark High School,
  • Stigall High School in Humboldt,
  • Rosenwald High School in Trenton

Hardeman County:

  • Industrial High School in Bolivar
  • Allen White High School in Whiteville

Haywood County:
Carver High School in Brownsville

Henderson County:
Montgomery High School in Lexington

Henry County:
Henry County Training School in Paris (also called Central High School)

Lake County:
Lincoln High School in Tiptonville

Lauderdale County:
Lauderdale County Training School in Ripley

Madison County:

  • West High School in Denmark (sometimes called Denmark High School)
  • Merry High School in Jackson
  • East High School in Jackson

McNairy County:
McNairy County (Colored) High School in Selmer

Obion County:
Miles High School in Union City

Shelby County:

  • 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

Tipton County:

  • Frazier High School in Covington
  • George Ellis High School in Munford
  • Gailor Episcopal Industrial School in Mason

Weakley County:
Weakley County Training School in Martin

MIDDLE TENNESSEE

Bedford County:
Bedford County Training School in Shelbyville

Coffee County:
Davidson Academy in Tullahoma

Davidson County:

  • Pearl High School
  • Haynes High School
  • Cameron High School
  • Meigs High School (all in Nashville)

Dickson County:
Hampton High School in Dickson

Franklin County:
Townsend High School in Decherd

Giles County:
Bridgeforth High School in Pulaski

Hardin County:
Dunbar High School in Savannah

Hickman County:
O.H. Bernard High School in Centerville

Humphreys County:
Porch Reed High School in Waverly

Lincoln County:
Fayette Negro School in Fayetteville

Marshall County:
Jones Training School in Lewisburg

Maury County:

  • Carver-Smith School in Columbia
  • Clarke Training School in Mount Pleasant

Montgomery County:
Burt High School in Clarksville

Putnam County:

  • Darwin High School in Cookeville
  • Allgood High School in Allgood

Robertson County:
Bransford High School in Springfield

Rutherford County:
Holloway High School in Murfreesboro

Smith County:
Turner High School in Carthage

Sumner County:
Union High School in Gallatin

Trousdale County:
Ward High School in Hartsville

Warren County:
Bernard High School in McMinnville

Williamson County:
Natchez High School in Franklin

Wilson County:
Wilson County Training School in Lebanon

EAST TENNESSEE

Anderson County:
Scarboro High School in Oak Ridge

Blount County:
Hall High School in Alcoa

Bradley County:
College Hill School in Cleveland

Campbell County:
Lafollette Colored High School in Lafollette

Carter County:
Douglas High School in Elizabethton

Cocke County:
Tanner High School in Newport

Greene County:
George Clem High School in Greeneville

Hamblen County:
West High School in Morristown

Hamilton County:

  • Howard High School in Chattanooga
  • Riverside High School in Chattanooga
  • Washington High School in Chattanooga

Hawkins County:
Swift Memorial High School in Rogersville

Jefferson County:
Nelson-Merry High in Jefferson City

Knox County:
Austin High School in Knoxville

Marion County:
McReynolds High School in South Pittsburg

McMinn County:
Cooke High School in Athens

Monroe County:
High Point High School in Sweetwater

Rhea County:
Carver High School in Dayton

Roane County:
Campbell High School in Rockwood

Sullivan County:

  • Douglass High School in Kingsport
  • Slater High School in Bristol

Washington County:
Langston High School in Johnson City

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About Author

Bill Carey

Researcher and writer Bill Carey co-founded Tennessee History for Kids in November 2004. He worked as a reporter in Nashville through most of the 1990s, and he is the author of six books, among them Fortunes Fiddles and Fried Chicken: A Nashville Business History; Chancellors, Commodores and Coeds: A History of Vanderbilt University; and Leave No One Behind: Hurricane Katrina and the Rescue of Tulane Hospital. He is a native of Huntsville, Alabama, who spent five years as a flight officer in the U.S. Navy. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1987.

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