Abandoned schools in the South always depress me. There is hardly a region of the country that needs education more than ours, and I can never understand why such a considerable investment as a school campus would just be abandoned and allowed to collapse, yet it happens all the time, particularly to schools that were earmarked for Black students prior to integration. South of Munford,Tennessee in Tipton County, I came upon the ruins of George Ellis High School, which had been the Black high school for the south end of Tipton County prior to integration. The school had been closed in 1970, and then served as a junior high school for Munford for a time, yet eventually it was sold off to some recycling firm, which later went out of business, and now the buildings are completely abandoned. It seemed to me as I walked around the decrepit and collapsing buildings that the campus could have been renovated to serve as a community center. From the outside, it appeared to have two gymnasiums, and could have been a great place for people of all ages to enjoy themselves during the summer, if Tipton County leadership had made a better decision. Next to a church in front (had they once given the land for the school?) was a sign placed by the Class of 1964 that proclaimed the ruins “Ellis Munford Junior High School,” which was likely the name at that class’s ten-year-anniversary in 1974 when the sign was likely dedicated. One of the peculiarities about George R. Ellis High School was that it was one of the few Black high schools in the South whose name honored a local white man rather than a Black educator. Apparently George R. Ellis was a prominent local man who eventually became a United States Marshal, but I could not determine what he had to do with the school or why it was named for him. I imagine that when Ellis graduates come back to what should be a sacred spot for them, it is not particularly a happy occasion. They deserve better.
Back in 1979, I had attended Shadowlawn Middle School in a rural area along Shadowlawn Road north of Ellendale. I was in the sixth grade then, and remember that I had to get up really early to catch the bus to ride out there, and my parents didn’t like it. I don’t know where I had heard the rumor that our school had once been a high school, but I recall asking one of our teachers about it, and she had stated that Shadowlawn had never been a high school. Back then, I never found any evidence to the contrary, but I do remember that the slogan “Soul Power” was spray-painted on one of the yellow road signs along Shadowlawn Road, and that there was still a grocery store open in those days, but we students were forbidden to go over there.
I learned the truth about Shadowlawn many years later, as a high school student at Bartlett High School in 1985 or 1986. Our school library and the main office had many of the old Panther Parade yearbooks, and when I looked at one from 1971, I noticed that a majority of the Black seniors in the book were said to have “transferred from Shadowlawn.” Furthermore, each student was allowed to list all of their activities, including those at Shadowlawn. I learned that the school had had a student newspaper, a band, a choir, and social clubs called the Gracious Ladies, the Gentlemen’s Club and the Elite Club. They had had football, basketball, baseball and track, a competitive current events quiz team and a drill team. There was also in that yearbook a picture of the straight A students from Shadowlawn, and a reference to “two completely different schools becoming one.” I decided that the history of this Black high school near Bartlett that had never produced a graduating class should be researched and documented, and I set out to do that. Through my friends in Ellendale and Oak Grove, I had no problem in finding and interviewing former students, and since I was required to do a senior term paper in English class, I decided to do the history of Shadowlawn High School as my topic. Unfortunately, the English teacher, Mrs. Reed denied permission for the topic, and I had to write about something else, which proved to be the Memphis Blues Brass Band, but I continued the research on Shadowlawn, interviewing former students and teachers, and desperately looking for memorabilia without really ever finding any. Ultimately I never wrote the paper/article/book, as I could never find any relevant photographs, and I felt that the story without pictures would not be nearly as compelling.
When I heard late last year that a Shadowlawn Alumni Association had been formed, and that a reunion had been held, I was amazed, and a little saddened that I hadn’t heard about it and hadn’t attended it. So when I discovered that a historic marker would be unveiled in front of the school on December 2, which also happened to be my birthday, I was determined to be present. Although my research had nothing to do with what was occurring, I felt it was something of a validation of what I had believed in back in 1985, and just a little comfort (too little in my opinion) for those seniors in 1971 who had been denied the right to graduate from their high school. On this cold Saturday morning, as I heard these men and women sing their alma mater, which choir and band director Lonnie Neely had written to the tune of Henry Mancini’s “Charade”, I felt the thrill of seeing an injustice partially put to rights. Thus inspired, my research into Shadowlawn and the neighborhoods around it continues.
Also thrilling to me was the opportunity to meet the Rev. Arthur Becton, a descendant of Thomas and Mittie Becton, who donated the land on which Shadowlawn School was built. Rev. Becton had known the Bartlett-area blues musician Lum Guffin personally, and was familiar with the fife-and-drum tradition in the area. He explained to me that in addition to the Independent Order of Pall Bearers and Guffin’s United Sons and Daughters of Zion, that there had also been another organization with a fife-and-drum band called the Social Benevolent Society, which used to hold picnics at a place called Early Brown Grove, which he said was near the corner of present-day Kirby-Whitten Parkway and Egypt-Central Road. He also told me that in that day when Blacks in the area were primarily without telephones, that the bass drum was beaten to inform people that someone in the club had died, or that someone was ill and needed visiting. Of the annual Brunswick picnic, he described how the picnic grounds were strung with strands of white Christmas lights so that the party could go on long after dark. I hope to do a formal interview with Rev. Becton in the next few weeks. Altogether it was a wonderful and uplifting morning.
Local Memphis media this past week has been reporting that the Fifth Circuilt Court of Appeals overturned Judge Bernice Donald’s ruling continuing federal oversight of Shelby County Schools, and declared the school district unitary (a fancy legal term for integrated or free of discrimination). White response has of course been positive, but I have to choke back a laugh and wonder how the courts can ignore what is painfully obvious for all to see. Previous court decisions have said that “unitary” school systems should not have schools identifiable by race. Southwind High School in southeast Shelby County on paper is 80% Black. I say on paper, because in reality, I am reliably told there are no white students in attendance. The 20% white enrollment has either fled the district or attends private schools. Shadowlawn Middle School had a 65% Black enrollment last year, and has an 80% Black enrollment this year. Keep in mind that all of this is occurring in a school district serving a population that is overwhelmingly white (the Shelby County Schools serves only that portion of the county outside of Memphis). For there to be majority-Black schools in suburban Shelby County, one has to be trying to have majority-Black schools, and that is exactly what is happening. The county school board draws boundaries in such a way as to limit contact between white and Black children in the public schools. The removal of court supervision leaves no one “minding the store” with a district that blatantly violated the law while they were under court supervision. When someone defies the law while enforcers are watching, it is ludicrous to remove the supervision and expect that they’ll do the right thing. The sad fact is, neither Memphis nor Shelby County has ever done the right thing when it comes to Black people.