Celebrating Black History Month:
Remembering McReynolds High School and The Lincoln School
As we celebrate Black History Month, we present the stories of two historic schools in the Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative service area that helped “build a brighter Tennessee.” The Lincoln School in Pikeville and McReynolds High School in South Pittsburg came about as the result of the efforts of local leaders in the African American communities of Bledsoe and Marion counties. Both schools were constructed as a part of the Rosenwald Rural School Building Program.
The Rosenwald School Building Program
The Rosenwald Program was established in 1912 with the goal of improving the quality of public education for African American youth in the rural South. It began with Booker T. Washington’s belief that the key to economic advancement and a better quality of life was through education. Washington took his ideas to Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company who had earlier expressed an interest in helping fund YMCAs across the country for African Americans and convinced him to fund schools instead.
The Rosenwald Rural School Building Program ran from 1912 to 1932. During that time, nearly 5,000 schools, 163 shop buildings and more than 200 teacher homes were built across 15 states and served 663,615 students. The cost of the building program totaled $28.5 million. The Rosenwald Fund contributed more than $4.3 million while $4.7 million was raised by African Americans in the communities served. By 1928, as the program was winding down, one in five schools for African American students in the South was a Rosenwald School.
McReynolds High School
Before the construction of McReynolds High School (MHS) in 1921, there was no high school for African American students in Marion County. The goal of establishing one was developed by a group of leaders from Black communities across the county. A committee of these leaders — including prominent African American doctor W.J. Astrapp, Dennis Martin, Arthur Haywood and chaired by Brown McReynolds — presented their case for the school before the Marion County School Board on May 3, 1919. In 1920, the school board approved funds to rent a store building in South Pittsburg to house the high school and elementary school for South Pittsburg. To honor the work McReynolds had put into the establishment of the school, Astrapp recommended that it be named McReynolds High School.
With a temporary school in place, the committee began to build support for the construction of a permanent high school. The committee met with R.E. Clay, an agent of the Rosenwald Foundation who provided valuable assistance in planning and organizing the committee’s campaign for a county high school. With continued efforts of McReynolds and the committee and assurances of funding from the Rosenwald Foundation and the African American community, the school board agreed to build a permanent school in South Pittsburg. The school was completed in 1921.
The Rosenwald donation of $1,600 was met and doubled with $3,100 from the Black communities and $900 from othe communities. The Marion County School Board appropriated the balance of the $25,116.20 total.
The school was known for its well-trained and caring staff of teachers and administrators. One of the most notable, professor M.M. Burnett, served as a public-school educator for 36 years, the last 25 as MHS principal.
“My experience at McReynolds was a typical school experience,” said 1962 graduate Ken Jordan. “I consider my education at McReynolds to be valuable. I have no reservations about the quality. We had great teachers who really cared about us and our education. If there was any shortcoming, it was a lack of lab equipment to provide quality chemistry and biology laboratory experiences. The lack of experience caused me some difficulty when I got to UT but nothing I couldn’t overcome."
“The McReynolds school experience included the entire African American culture — the parents, teachers, the community and substantial jobs for Blacks. There was no lack of support for students. There were high standards to be met — ethics and values you were taught and expected to follow. We might have lacked for material things but nothing else.” “My class was one of the last few graduating classes before the school closed in 1965 with the beginning of desegregation,” Jordan concluded.
“McReynolds was not just one school; it was three schools — an elementary, a middle school and a high school — firs through 12th grades,” said alumnus and MHS math teacher Richard Wiggins. “One of the great things about the school was that you got to meet and make friends with people from across the county and Bridgeport — not just people from the community you lived in.”
Dorothy Wilkerson Lane, a Bridgeport student, was a proud 16-year-old graduate of the class of 1959. Lane was one of the students who rode the bus to school each day. She fondly recalls the bus driver as one of her favorite people. learned a lot and really enjoyed my time with the teachers and professor Burnett, our principal. They were very kind Everyone at the school — from the principal and teachers to the cooks, the custodians and the bus driver — really care about the students.”
The school tragically burned in 1965 during the transition to desegregation; however, the school that has been described as “the heart and soul of Marion County” lives on through its graduates who have gone on to become leaders in their communities, in the state and across the nation. To keep the memories alive, MHS graduate Gladys Streeter Wooten, president of the African American Heritage Association of Marion County and school historian, was appointed by the South Pittsburg Historic Preservation Commission to collect and preserve memorabilia associated with the cultural and ethnic heritage of African American citizens of the county. She was also asked to provide recognition of Marion County Black history by establishing a monument for McReynolds Elementary and High School. “As a historian and a student, I am glad to be a McReynolds graduate,” said Wooten.
The Lincoln School
Prior to 1920, no provisions had been made for a school building for African American children in Pikeville and the rest of Bledsoe County. Area children attended school at the local African American churches. During the early 1920s, a teacher from South Pittsburg visited Pikeville and introduced the community to the Rosenwald School Building Program. At that time, the local African American community did not have the capital to meet the financial requirements of the program; however, families initiated a fundraising campaign and raised $1,200 toward construction of the school — more than needed to match the $900 contribution from the Rosenwald Fund. The total cost of the building was $5,338 with the state and county governments providing the balance. A teacher’s home was also constructed at a cost of $2,000, which was nearly equally divided between Rosenwald and public funds.
The school was completed in 1925-26 and was one of the most unusual Rosenwald Schools built in Tennessee. The school is a standard three-teacher design; however, the walls and ceiling are clad in ornately patterned stamped tin, which was not part of the standard Rosenwald design, and a feature not found in any other Rosenwald school. The pressed tin was a feature that reflected local preferences.
Lincoln School was designed to not only meet the needs of the students but to serve the needs of the community as well. The design for the standard Rosenwald school specified that the schools should be large enough to accommodate gatherings of the entire community. Lincoln has two adjoining rooms with movable partitions and a raised platform at one end of the combined space in addition to a regular classroom and an industrial room. These rooms housed numerous political rallies and church and community events. The school even served as a voting precinct up until 1968.
The school closed in 1965 with the advent of the desegregation of schools in Bledsoe County and was later sold for use as a storage building. It came up for auction in the early 1990s and was rescued by a group of Lincoln School alumni who formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit association and obtained a loan to purchase the building. Rev. James A. Bridgeman, a student at Lincoln in the 1930s, served as the president of the Lincoln Alumni Community Historical Association for many years.
At the time of purchase, the building was in great need of repair. Just as the community had come together to get the school built, they rallied again to bring it back to life. The group raised the funds needed to make the repairs and completed the requirements for the school to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. The school has been preserved as a community center for the Black community.
The historic school that has been described as “documenting the hopes and dreams of African Americans in the mid-1920s” is again in need of repairs to prevent further damage. Alumnus Luther Hollingsworth, now 83 years old, serves as the current president of the association since the passing of Rev. Bridgeman. “I’m about the only one left who went to school there,” said Mr. Hollingsworth. “It is getting hard to raise money for repairs when so many have passed on or moved away.”
If you would like to make a donation to help preserve this important part of Bledsoe County and Tennessee history, contact Mr. Luther Hollingsworth at 423-447-6601.