MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A piece of African American history in Memphis has been sitting in plain sight for years, and you still may have missed it.
It is believed to be the last one-room school house where Black students got a segregated education. Built in the 1940s, the little building is now tucked behind the Fire Training Academy in East Memphis.
Now the city and several partners are working to make sure everyone knows the history of the Presidents Island school.
“I always thought this was just an old storage building or something that was on the property, and didn’t really pay attention to it,” Memphis Fire Director Gina Sweat said.
But when she started digging, she learned that, for years, this house sat on stilts on President’s Island in a Black community where students gathered to have a chance to learn.
Memphis historian Rev. LaSimba Gray says its amazing it still stands.
“Thirty-one families of sharecroppers, the children, went to this school, one-room schoolhouse with one teacher,” Gray said. “She was masterful in organizing. She even used the oldest students to teach the youngest student.”
When the school closed in the 1960s, the house ended up at Libertyland. When that closed, it was put at the Fire Training Center. Back in 2010, students at East High School tried to restore it. They even interviewed former students.
Recently, Sweat began the push for the school house to be saved, putting it on bricks and finding workers to put on a new roof and shingles.
“You know, I think this is a property that is historically important to our city, and to our community,” Sweat said. “And so, while it wasn’t on fire, it was definitely deteriorating.”
The City of Memphis, Shelby County Schools, LaSimba Gray and other partners got on board to make sure it is restored.
“To talk about a one room schoolhouse in 2021, that’s far fetched for a lot of people. But to see it, it’s a real reality,” Gray said. “And I think we’ll have a lot of impact on those who can look at the progress in public education that we have made since 1947.”
The plan is to make the school house a museum and place it where people can visit.
“We want to restore it to have just like it was as a classroom with benches, desks, the wood-burning stoves,” Gray said. “Wherever this school house lands it will be a lesson for many years to come.”
Retired Principal Carol Gray says it shows the power of education.
“It didn’t have all the bells and whistles but it probably had a teacher who was dedicated and who loved every one of her students, and was determined that she would help them to be the very best that they could be,” she said.