Bristol, TN

Unified Eduction in Bristol's Roots

John M. Dabbs

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Photo by John Dabbs

They are relics of a bygone era. These were part of our culture, and now - our history. I'm talking about designated African-American high schools. In Tennessee alone, there were about 90 high schools designated strictly for African-Americans. They ranged from Bristol to Memphis. They were known as colored high schools. If a black family wanted their children to attend high school, and they had the resources to get there, these were their only option.

Slater High School

What we now know as the Slater Center was once the John F. Slater High School. The school continues to be a fine facility. They built it in 1955 on McDowell Street in Bristol, Tennessee. It was the city's high school for African-Americans until they integrated the students with the white school system in 1965.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 (Brown vs. Board of Education) signaled the beginning of the end for segregated high schools. It took nearly 15 years for Tennessee high schools to integrate. Many of these designated schools' names were stricken from city directories, and the buildings were torn down or abandoned.

“They are an important part of our history and culture,” ... “We must accept the past and realize that it made us what we are. These schools were just as important in the black community as churches were.” - Calvin Sneed, Kingsport native and organizer of Tri-Cities African-American High Schools' reunions.
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Around the Tri-Cities

In the greater Tri-Cities area, the segregated high schools could be found in many areas.

  • Douglas High School - Elizabethton
  • Douglas High School - Kingsport
  • George Clem High School - Greeneville
  • Slater High School - Bristol, TN
  • Langston High School - Johnson City

Some Facts about Segregated High Schools in Tennessee

  • Most all of the African-American high schools were named for their national and local heroes or other prominent figures of the day. Others were relegated to names such as "training schools.
  • African-American high school numbers varied wildly by county. At least 15 counties didn't have one. Shelby County had at least 14.
  • 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. Carroll County's Webb High School building is now a Head Start facility. Pulaski's Bridgeforth High School is now Bridgeforth Middle School. Bristol's Slater High School and Gallatin's Union High School are both a community center. Most of the former high schools devote at least one room to their history of African-American school heritage.
  • Many continue to serve as an integrated school. At least one former school serves as the office building for the county's board of education.
  • Famous Tennessee athletes attended an African-American school: Reggie White, Perry Wallace, "Too Tall" (Ed) Jones, and others.
  • Famous artists... Tina Turner attended Carver High School in Haywood County.

Fading from history

It is unfortunate that segregation was part of our history, yet we need to remember. It is part of what we were and how our country has evolved. Just as monuments have been erected for heroes who are now held in a different regard, we have schools to also remind of us different times.

We need to remember and reflect. Our monuments and statues should remain, and remind us of what was. There was good and bad there - as with everything. The same goes for segregated schools. Many good and gifted students had a means of getting a better education because of their existence.

Many of the school buildings are now gone or abandoned. Some of these have burned or torn down for safety reasons. Other reasons include simple economics or lack of space - or forethought.

"There were other efforts to establish schools for blacks here.[Bristol]" - Bud Phillips, Bristol Historian

After the Civil War ended, congress created the Federal Freed Man's Bureau. Its mission was to help the four million former slaves pursue an education. In 1868, the bureau established a school. The school is believed to be a small log house near Oak and Lindsey Streets, in Bristol, Virginia. The building was also reportedly used as an isolation ward for the hospital's Confederate soldiers with contagious diseases during the Civil War.

The Normal Institute

Reverend Frank Woodfin of the United Presbyterian Church on McDowell Street ran the Bristol Normal Institute at 321 McDowell Street. The institute was established with the help of Major A. D. Reynolds and his thousand dollar donation for the building. The Normal Institute was purchased by the Bristol Tennessee Board of Education in 1915, using a grant from the J.F. Slater Foundation. John Slater of Norwich, Connecticut, was a wealthy textile manufacturer and philanthropist. He established a foundation in support of black schools.

The board of education changed the name from Normal Institute to McDowell High School. The graduating class (five students) was given the honor of choosing the school's new name in 1919. They chose to rename the school in honor of their benefactor, John F. Slater High School.

P.E. Butler, the school's principal since the city took over the facility, remained at Slater High School until he retired in 1949.

The Slater Center today

Today, the Slater Center is a community center operated by the Bristol Tennesse Department of Parks and Recreation.

Check out this video from the City of Bristol Tennessee:

For information on the Douglas School in neighboring Bristol, Virginia, here is a video from Blacks In Appalachia:

The police department has its community policing offices here, and there are many classes and other functions going on for seniors and youngsters alike. The Bristol Tennessee Fire Department has conducted EMT and Advanced EMT classes here, as part of the State of Tennessee's pilot program allowing agencies to conduct classes in-house as opposed to a community college.

There is a wealth of knowledge and history within these once-segregated schools. The buildings continue to teach us and let us come together in ways people never considered. Maybe we should take our cue for the buildings themselves.

I hope you enjoy this story in honor of Black History Month.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Bristol, TN
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