Last week’s column talked about the private schools in Bartlett in the 1860s and 1870s. At that time there was no public school system, but in 1873 the Tennessee Legislature passed an act “to establish and maintain a uniform system of public free school” and provided funding. Each school district had three directors who administered the schools, which were open to children ages 6-18 (black and white segregated).
In 1885 a school at Bartlett was chartered by Dr. John McBrooks as president of the school board in the courthouse that had been vacated that year. Dr. Nicholas Blackwell, who owned the land and building, gave the school board permission to use the two-story brick building under the condition that it would revert to his estate if it ceased to be used for educational purposes. The building had three classrooms downstairs, one classroom upstairs and a combination study hall/auditorium.
In 1907 the state Legislature instituted a sweeping educational reform with all schools of a county placed under a five-member, county-wide board of education and superintendent of schools. One of the first orders of business for the Shelby County Board of Education was the approval of repairs to the Courthouse School in Bartlett. In 1908 the building was renovated, and it was used until 1917. The school grew rapidly during these years, and athletic teams were organized to participate in county-wide competitions. Under the new county-wide system children were traveling further from their homes, and a system-wide use of wagonettes were implemented. These wagonettes were eight-foot wagons, drawn by horses, with a top on them and leatherette curtains to let down during inclement weather. The wagons had bricks on the floor to be heated in the wintertime to keep children’s feet warm. Bartlett received one of these wagonettes.
At a town meeting on Feb. 19, 1917, an appeal was drawn up expressing the need for a new school building as the Courthouse School was “old, unsanitary, unsafe and totally unfit.” The Shelby County Board of Education and Shelby County delegation in the Legislature agreed to support the issuance of bonds for a new school. On March 28, 1917. Ben R. and Willie Blackwell Miller (daughter of Dr. Nicholas Blackwell) donated seven acres of land for the school and asked that it be named in honor of her father, Nicholas Blackwell. Their request was honored.
A new school was erected and opened in 1918 with Miss Dora Gholson, former principal of the Courthouse School, continuing as the first principal of Nicholas Blackwell High School. Students in grades 1-12 all occupied the new building, which contained 19 classrooms (elementary grades in the west annex). There were about 100 students with seven faculty members. At this time Coleman High School in Raleigh closed and students from Raleigh also attended the new school. Because three teachers drove cars, a garage was built on the east side of the main building. A bookstore was begun when one of the seven teachers bought a dozen pencils and a dozen tablets from a town merchant. Soon after the opening of the school, teachers, parents and the community gathered to celebrate the armistice and end of World War I.
John H. George Sr. became principal in 1922 and contributed much during the two decades (1922-1940) he served. In 1925 the school was accredited by the Southern Association of High Schools and Colleges with high academic standards and has maintained them since then. The school newspaper, called The Gleaner, began publication in 1931. Mr. George organized boys and girls basketball teams, which he took time to coach. Under his supervision, a gymnasium was built in 1931 (which is the Main Gym currently), and in 1931-1933 bleachers were added. In 1937 an auditorium was added to the main building, which had a seating capacity of 1,027 people.
Henry Roland became principal in 1940 and served in that capacity through 1947, guiding the school through the years of World War II. During that time the school campus expanded with the addition of numerous classrooms, a library, an industrial arts shop and a stadium.
Ralph Hunt held the position of principal from 1947 through 1955. Under his tenure the football field had lights installed, making it possible for night games to be played. The school yearbook, Panther Parade, was first published in 1949. There had been a few yearbooks in the 1920s, but because of the Depression and war years, publication was halted until the more prosperous times of the Forties. In 1950, property adjacent to the school was purchased and a gymnasium with seating for 2,200 and a 15-room elementary building were built.
See more about Bartlett’s educational growth in next week’s column.
Written by Suzanne Griffith Coleman, special to the Express.