Early Black Education in Memphis



In 1864-65 provisions were made for maintaining public schools for "colored children" and incorporating these schools into the Memphis school system.   But there was a tremendous set-back due to the race riot of 1866 when all black schools were either burned or destroyed (See more info on the race riot below). 

The first free school for black students opened in 1863.  By 1865 there were more than 4,000 blacks in school.  And not all of them were children.  The earliest free schools were established mostly by missionaries from the North and most of the early teachers were white.  Eventually the black leaders began to demand black teachers for their schools.  In 1872, five black women and six white women were employed as teachers in the black schools.  By 1884, the same schools employed 11 women and 9 men, all black.  Most of the women were young when they began teaching, and became part of the emerging black professional elite.  Among them was Virginia Broughton, the first black women in the South to receive a college degree.  By the 1880s, graduates of the black Memphis Schools, such as Fannie Thompson, and Green P. Hamilton, were returning as teachers.

Freedmen's School  -  The photos below are very historic - beginning with one of the first "Freedmen's Schools" in Memphis.  The exact date is unknown but the first Freedmen's Schools opened in 1863 and all of them were burned in the Race Riots of 1866 - so that does pin point it.   (Note:  We have seen this same photo identified as being located in Virginia and North Carolina) ... The next photo is a typical interior of one of the schools, and then two illustrations from Harper's Weekly - showing a burning school in the Riots of 1866 and finally an illustration of the Memphis Freedmen's School Bureau in 1866 - obviously related to the Riots of 1866.   (Complete story of the riots appears near the bottom of this page)


Freedmen's School c. 1864-66

 Interior of Freedmen's School

Freedmen's School burns 1866

Freedmen's School Bureau


The first recorded Memphis black BRICK public school was Clay Street School in 1873.  But it was not until 1891 that the first class graduated from a black public high school.  Clay was renamed Kortrecht High School in 1891.  The first principal of Clay was J. H. Barnum, who later became the first black to become the Superintendent of "Colored" Schools.  

For over a century Memphis maintained "separate but equal" school facilities for the two races.  Memphis City Schools began desegregation in the late 1950s.  In 1963, Tech High became the first Memphis "white high school" to be integrated.  But the overall progress was slow until a court order in 1973 required busing to fully integrate the schools. The 1973 busing order was unpopular with white families and within a short time many white families had enrolled their children in private schools. 


Clay Street School - the first one originated around 1867-70.  It had two rooms and two teachers.  The first principal was a white man - not uncommon in these days.  Virtually every black child for the next 75 years will trace his education to either Clay School or it's successor Kortrecht School.


Clay Street School - the second one  - Built in 1873, Clay Street School 2 was the first all brick building for "the colored of Memphis".  Black citizens were successful in getting the entire school staffed with only black teachers.

Kortrecht Grammar School - Soon after opening, Clay Street School was renamed Kortrecht Grammar School.  Charles Kortecht, was President of the School Board and had been instrumental in getting the school built.


Kortrecht High School

In 1891, Kortrecht  Grammar School was changed to Kortrecht High School.  The first class of black students graduated the same year - 5 women
(Rebecca E. Driver, Fannie B. turner, Gueiler D. Miller, Sarah E. Martin, and Katie L. Merriwether.  See Photo below).   In 1892 Green P. Hamilton was appointed principal.  And a new school was built.


Kortrecht High School - 2

In 1911 the Memphis Board of Education decided that a new school was needed to replace the old and inadequate Kortrecht High School.  Although the Kortrecht name appears on the building in the photo on the right, the building is really the former "white" Peabody School.  Kortrecht High took over the building on the NW corner of Webster and the Peabody School moved to a new building on Young Av.  Now there were two Kortrecht schools again - a Grammar and a High School.  As the city's only Black public high school, every Black graduate in Memphis was an alumnus of Kortrecht school.  In 1926 Kortrecht High school became Booker T. Washington in a new building, and Green P. Hamilton became the first  principal.


Green. P. Hamilton was a native of Memphis and a product of the early Memphis education system.  He was associated with the school system since 1884 and became Principal of Kortrecht High School in 1892.  Hamilton Elementary, Junior High, and High Schools are named in his honor. He is the author of "The Bright Side of Memphis" and 2 other books.  As principal of Kortrecht High, he organized the first African American high school band in Memphis about 1900.

List of Teachers

G. P. Hamilton




1926 Manassas Report Card - Front

Manassas High was established in 1899 and it was the first four-year accredited "colored" high school in Shelby County.  The first senior class graduated in 1924.  Manassas initiated the first sports program among black schools in Memphis in 1924.  (Click here for the complete history of Manassas.   PDF File.  Please use the Back Button to return to this page)   

In the 1920's a teacher named Jimmie Lunceford taught music at Manassas.  His high school band was so good that Lunceford quit his teaching job and took the band out on the road. The Jimmie Lunceford Band was one of the premiere touring big bands of the 1930's and 1940's, and enjoyed success with recordings, as well.  Isaac Hayes also went to Manassas before going on to fame as a composer and performer.

1926 Manassas Report Card - Back

Jimmie Lunceford and the Jimmie Lunceford Band



Melrose High was established in 1890 and was the pride of the Orange Mound neighborhood.  The school was named after Dr. Melrose, a philanthropist and humanitarian.  Melrose became part of the Memphis City Schools in 1919.  By 1929 the building was considered "a fire trap", and a new building was finally funded in 1937.  By the time it opened in 1938, Park Avenue Schools and Melrose had merged.



Melrose High 1938

An extremely rare 1939 post card featuring Melrose




The Howe Institute  (now Lemoyne-Owen College)


 A rare 1892 photo of The Howe Institure

 Lemoyne Class - 1871

Founded in 1888 by Peter Howe, as Memphis' Baptist and Normal Institute, this was one of the earliest private educational facilities for African Americans in Memphis.   In 1902 Thomas O. Fuller was named principal and under his leadership "the school has gone forward by leaps and bounds".  T. O. Fuller State Park in Shelby County is named for him.  

   T. O. Fuller  

     A Postcard picturing The Howe Institute, Circa 1910

A 1909 Brochure describing the history of The Howe Institute



High School Class, Circa 1910

First graduating class at
Kortrecht High  -  1891

8th Grade Class, 1912-13


List of  "Colored Schools" teachers, 1881

"Colored Industrial Class - Culinary", 1910

"Colored Industrial Class - Shop", 1910




Virginia Avenue School

Books by Virginia Broughton

Kortrecht -  circa 1926

 The old Clay-Kortrecht Building
was renamed Virginia Av.

First Black Woman in the South
 to receive a college degree..

This may be a photo of just one homeroom at Kortrecht or the new Booker T. Washington.



No Information ???

1917 Kortrecht Diploma






Historical Marker:  The first free "colored" school in the city was opened in early 1863 in a barrack building in South Memphis. In 1864 the U.S. Army issued a general order authorizing its officers to help with these schools for the education of freedmen. In 1865 there were 9 schools here. All were burned during the May 1866 race riot. In 1868-69 there were again 9 schools in operation in various locations in the city. One of these schools was located in this area.

Note:  That first school was opened by Miss Fannie Kidder, "...a lady of culture and high Christian character from Illinois".



Harper's Weekly Article 1866

The Race Riot of 1866  All 9 black schools were either burned or destroyed during these riots.

On May 1-2, 1866, Memphis suffered its worst race riot in history. Some forty-six African Americans and two whites died during the riot. Reports are that seventy-five persons were injured, one hundred persons robbed, five women raped, ninety-one homes burned, four churches and eight schools burned and destroyed, and thousands of dollars in federal property destroyed.

The riot started after an alarm went out that African American soldiers from Fort Pickering, on the south boundary of downtown Memphis, had killed several policemen who tried to arrest a black soldier. In response to the reports, Union General George Stoneman disarmed the soldiers and locked them in their barracks, leaving nearby freedmen's settlements vulnerable to the white mobs that soon attacked women, children, and defenseless men, as well as the northern missionaries who served as ministers and teachers for the freedmen.

The Memphis riots reflected the anger and frustration felt by many white citizens and particularly former Confederates, who had suffered the agony of a bitter defeat at the hands of a black and white Union army. The jobs that were taken by freed blacks had formerly been the property of recent immigrants - the poor Irish.  That led to a bitterness between the two groups which was made much more volatile by virtue of almost complete Irish control of the police and fire departments.
 Some downtown businessmen participated in the mob because they resented the hordes of penniless freedmen on the streets. Other rioters wanted revenge for the Union occupation. The use of African American soldiers as patrolmen with power to order whites to "move on" was especially galling to many. Finally, the riots reflected the attitudes of most white citizens toward the former slaves who were then free and soon demanding equal rights.


B. K. Sampson- 2nd Principal  of Clay School

Sarah Clark  .  Principal of Chelsea School

Early "Colored Teachers":  Mary Johnson - Mary Tyler - Elya Mitchell - Rose Kinney - Graftil Moody - Maria Rankin - Mattie Clouston - Mrs. S. H. Thompson - Olivia Davidson, Virginia Broughton.

Julia B. Hooks - Memphis teacher, but known more as an activist for civil rights than as an educator.

Ida B. Wells  - Memphis teacher, but known more as an activist for civil rights than as an educator.


The newspaper articles below are very interesting.  Click on the fragment to enlarge the complete article.

Most articles are PDF files - so please use your Back Button to return to this page.



Below:  1868 article about an Exhibition of the "Free Colored Schools" in Memphis.
Below:  1868 report on enrollment of the "Colored Schools of Memphis"



Below:  1868 article about the costs of "Freedmen's Schools"
Below:  1868 article on the state of "Our Colored Schools"

Below:  1869 Report of a visit to "Colored Schools"
Below:  1872 article about an exhibition of the "Colored Schools" in Memphis.





Below:  1873 meeting about "colored" asking for better school buildings and better teachers.
Below:  1874 Memphis Directory listing "Colored Schools"

Below:  Letter from C. C. Branch, Memphis teacher about "Colored"  Education.
Below:  Report on "Our Colored Schools" from Prof. J. H. Barnum, first Superintendent of  ColoredSchools.


Below:  1887 Letter from B. K. Sampson, published in the newspaper, in retaliation to a minister's "attack".

Below: 1889 Article - a testimonial and a rebuke about "Negro Education" in the South.



Below:  The 1866 published Statistics of the "Colored Schools of Memphis".






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