Pioneers of Education in Memphis


This page recognizes the early, important pioneers of education in Memphis.  Listed below are just a few of the educators who made a difference in the foundation of the Memphis City Schools. 


Miss Jennie M. Higbee ... and The Higbee School

Probably no name is as important in the history of early education in Memphis, as that of Miss Jennie M. Higbee.  Miss Higbee was born in 1839 and came to Memphis from New Jersey in the late 1800s and taught for awhile at St. Mary's School and then moved to the Female High School at Court and 3rd for 10 years. 

This position led to the Higbee School. 
It was thought by her friends that she would be most useful by placing her at the head of a school they were establishing in 1875 and originally called the Presbyterian Grammar and High School, with Miss Jennie M. Higbee, principal.   In 1879 the name was changed to "Miss Higbee's High School," and in 1882 to The Higbee School."


An 1888 Ad in The Daily Avalanche

The Higbee School was located at the intersection of Beale and Lauderdale.  The building was a three-story brick with seventeen rooms devoted to study and recitation. The grounds were beautifully shaded with oaks, elms and magnolias. In addition a new building has just been completed on the grounds . It was an imposing structure and well arranged to meet all requirements.  Besides the common branches of an English education, the course of study included the higher English branches, natural sciences, literature, ancient and modern languages, music, phonography, painting and wood carving. The object of the principal of this school is expressed in her motto, "Not many things, but much."   The Higbee School quickly became one of the South's leading educational institutions for young women.

Jenny Higbee passed away in 1903 and the school could not survive without her, and it closed in 1910.  The Memphis Trades and Labor Council purchased the property in 1921 and remodeled the building for their headquarters.  In 1972 the old building was demolished.  There is a memorial to Miss Higbee in Overton Park and Higbee Avenue is named for her.


Click on small photo for an enlargement


The Higbee School The Higbee School An early Calendar with Higbee School

Monument to Miss Higbee, Overton Park Rear of the Higbee School The Higbee School - remodeled


Annie Christine Reudelhuber ... "Miss Christine"

Long-time principal of SMITH School (Market Street School) from 1882 – 1920.  When she died in 1920, the school was re-named CHRISTINE School.  This new name was the last, and the school was demolished in 1964-65.

In the early part of the nineteenth century John D. and Evelyn M. (Wilhelm) Reudelhuber, who were born, reared and married in the Rhine Provinces of Germany, immigrated to the the United States and settled in New Orleans.  They had five children - three sons and two daughters.  Then they moved to Memphis, where their children were educated in the Memphis city schools.

The family was noted as possessing many "sterling qualities of head and heart."  One of the sons was quite a military genius, and served in the light artillery at the age of seventeen in the Civil War. The eldest daughter, Christine, a product of the public schools, became a teacher at the age of fifteen, and was  promoted until she became principal of the largest school in Memphis.  Her sister, Pauline, also graduated in the Memphis city schools with honors, and became principal of the Merrill School.  Both distinguished themselves not only as efficient teachers, but as able disciplinarians.

Many of the city's most successful principals and teachers received their training under Miss Christine's careful and strict supervision.  She was a wonderful disciplinarian, fair and just, but a stickler for strict obedience.  Her word was law and no one dared challenge it.  Yet all teachers regarded her with great affection and those who knew her best admired her learning and deep wisdom.

Miss Christine had a distinct sense of fashion - favoring very elaborate and tall hats with plumes.   In nearly every photo of her taken at the Market Street School over the years she is pictured wearing a new hat.  One wonders if she didn't spend most of her salary on this fashion statement and whether she might have worn the tall hats to appear taller than the students and more  in control? 

Mrs. E. J. Crockett

Born in Boston in 1835, Elizabeth Crockett was the daughter of Edward and Eliza (Johnson) Belcher.   Her father was a lawyer and their family consisted of seven children - 3 sons and 4 daughters.   In her youth the family moved to Oxford, Mississippi where she was educated.  And from the earliest period of her life Elizabeth was accustomed to being around an educational atmosphere.

In 1862 she and William H. Crockett were married.  During the Civil War he fought for the Southern cause, being a staff officer of Gen. Hindman.  At the battle of Shiloh he was severely wounded, and

never fully recovered. The Crockett's had three children.  After the death of her husband in 1875, she began her teaching career in the Memphis High School and shortly afterwards was made principal.  She was the first woman in Memphis who was appointed principal of a high school devoted to both sexes.  The school was located on the 3rd floor of the Old Market Street School.  Around 1978-79, due to lack of funds, the high school was about to be abolished but largely due to her efforts, the school was retained. 

The love of humanity was a religion to Mrs. Crockett.  She was friend of the lowly as well as the sympathizer of those in high places.  She merged her personal life entirely in her work and gave herself totally to her calling.  Not believing in drastic methods of discipline, she ruled by love and moral persuasion.  And she left an indelible impression on all who came under her influence.    Memphis Crockett Technical High School was named in honor of Mrs. E. J. Crockett. *(1)

Charles Henry Collier  August 25, 1841- May 9, 1923

A native of Virginia, he served in the Engineering Corps of the Navy for four years before coming to Memphis in 1871.  Here, he was an assistant teacher in the Memphis High School, and afterwards served as principal of the Smith School and The Leath School.  In 1880 he was chosen Superintendent of Memphis Schools  and served in that position for 12 years.

Son of Charles H. Collier and Sarah Cowles of Virginia.  In 1879 he married Julia Bingham and they had 4 children.


Miss Alice O'Donnell  ... Miss Alice

Alice O’Donnell, a native Memphian, was born July 7, 1865.  She began her career at the old Market School in 1886, where she had graduated the year before.   Her next position was at the Memphis High School, and then a period at Vocational High School, and finally 15 years as Assistant Principal of Tech High School.   Throughout her 45 years of teaching she had probably taught more Memphis girls and boys than any teacher in the city.  She taught history and English and was regarded as an authority on history.  She never ceased to study and took many courses at Columbia University, University of Tennessee, and other colleges, as well as traveling in practically  every country in Europe.   Active in club, educational and civic projects,  Miss O’Donnell
held many offices in various organizations.  She was literacy chairman of the Memphis Federation


of Parent-Teacher Associations and state chairman of education for the League of Women Voters.  And she was elected 6th Vice President of the City Federation of PTA. 

 At the time of her death, May 15, 1931, she was planning a book on Andrew Jackson, her favorite historical character.   Her death was from pneumonia, arising out of a sinus attack.  She was borne to her grave by “her boys” – the cadet officers of Tech High School ROTC.  The entire student body attended the services, each bringing a rose to be dropped on the casket at the cemetery.


Miss Clara Conway
 ... and the Conway Institute

Clara Conway was born in New Orleans on August 14, 1844.  She was educated at St. Agnes Academy, Memphis, but her main education was by her own study at home. She traveled extensively in the United States and in Europe and her special gift was to prepare girls for college – primarily Vassar and Wellesley.

Early in her career, she was principal of  the Alabama Street School and the Market Street School.  In 1
877 she left a prominent position in the public schools to open a high grade school for girls. 


Conway Institute on Poplar, west of Orleans

She began with 50 pupils, one assistant, and $300 of borrowed money. In 1884-'85 a number of public-spirited citizens of Memphis came to her assistance, organized a stock company, incorporated the school incorporated, and a building erected. Miss Conway proposed to call the school the Margaret Fuller School, but instead, the trustees named it the Clara Conway Institute. From the small beginning the institute became very successful and continued until 1893. 

Her school claimed a fine reference library, a well-equipped gymnasium, a science lab, and a complete arts studio.  There were courses in voice, piano, theory, and public speaking.  Over the years she won the friendship of famous artist, musicians, authors and scientists.


Clara Conway had hoped to found a school that would make women economically independent and she believed a solid education would do this.  She became one of the most prominent figures in education in the South and her school held a unique place in the region as a major preparatory school for young women.  The circumstances of the school's demise in 1893 are somewhat unclear but appear to have stemmed from conflict between Conway and her trustees.  She was determined to carry out the college-preparatory idea over the opposition of her financial backers who wrote about "too much ambition on the part of the principal"

After the closure of her school, she continued to teach for a few years on a much smaller scale, with herself as the sole teacher.  Her influence on students was deep and lasting.  Clara Conway died in 1904.

J. L. Highsaw

James Leonard Highsaw became principal of Crockett Vocational High in 1918 and continued in that position as the school officially became Tech High School.  He remained principal of Tech until his retirement in 1957.  He estimated that he had signed over 10,000 diplomas.

Born in Pecan Gap, Texas, Highsaw began teaching at 17 in a one-room school house and continued teaching while going to college at the University of Oklahoma - graduating in 1911.  Later, he attended the University of Texas.

Mr. Highsaw came to Memphis in 1912, just after his marriage to May Baker, and was head of the

Science Department, and the Debate Coach at Central High until 1918.   From his position at Central, he was promoted to principal at Crockett Vocational High in 1918.     At Central and at Tech, he was well known as a good public speaker and debate master.  His master's thesis at the University of Oklahoma was on debating and it became "the" authority for schools around the country.  Professor Highsaw was particularly adept at telling about his "dream" the night before the Tech-Central football games.  Of course, in his dreams, Tech always won.

At Crockett Vocational High School, Mr. Highsaw oversaw tremendous growth at the school, and pushed for a new and modern "technical" school for the South.  He was also instrumental in getting the name changed from "Vocational" to "Technical".  And the R.O.T.C. was organized during his first year.  After retiring in 1957 he was made a librarian of the U. S. House of Representatives.

Two of his sons graduated from Tech in 1931 and 1934.  Both of them were excellent scholars, as well as president  and valedictorian of their class.  Both became successful lawyers,  educators, and writers.


J. W. A. Pettit

J. W. A. Pettit  is known as the “Father of Memphis City Schools”,  He was the first to urge the Board of Aldermen of Memphis to establish a system of free schools for the city. This was early in 1848, and in accordance with his advice the members of the board had schools opened each of the respective wards.  Mr. Pettit opened the first school at the northeast corner of Third and Overton Streets, in the house of Mrs. Moore, whom he employed as teacher. Subsequently he opened a second school, with Mr. Walker as teacher, near the corner of Main and Overton Streets.  Through Pettit’s influence, Memphis began assigning city treasury funds to schools with a first year budget of $20,000.  Petit, the first superintendent, was not paid.  Then, in 1852 the treasury imposed a city school tax rate, followed by a county school tax rate in 1854.

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The creation of these tax rates allowed children who formerly couldn't afford school tuition to receive a public education, but it would still be another 20 years before public education was extended to black citizens.


Eugene Magevney

The name of Magevney is remembered in Memphis today for one reason, the Magevney House.  This popular tourist attraction in Memphis' “Victorian Villiage“ was given to the city by his grand daughter and totally restored by the city.  Eugene Magevney was born in Ireland  in 1798 and had hoped to become a priest, but later decided he was more dispositioned towards teaching.

He arrived in Memphis in 1833 when the city was only 14 years old.  There was no public education program, but Magevney was allowed to use a small log house in Court Square.  During this period, there was little interest in teaching girls or poor children, but the city's well-heeled residents were glad to have education for their children.  One problem from the start was that some parents paid

 “in kind“ - the practice of paying with something other than money.  In this case it was land, lots and lots of cheap land.  And so Eugene Mageveney became a very rich man.  By the time of his death in 1873, his net worth was $3.5 million dollars.  This was all in solid Union currency so Magevney survived the war and “Reconstruction“ with his wealth intact.

In 1840 Magevney sent to Ireland for his intended, one Mary Smyth (a former pupil).  The previous year he had purchased the small house where he was boarding.  This is the house known today as The Magevney House.  Memphis' first Catholic mass was celebrated in this house.  One year later the first Catholic wedding was performed here and the following year, the first christening. 

At the age of 42 Magevney quit teaching to devote all of his time to real estate.  After surviving two bouts of Yellow Fever, Eugene Magevney succumbed to the Yellow Fever of 1873.  He died at 75 years old.  


J.  W. Curtis -
1st Principal of Vocational School

T. C. Anderson - First principal of Memphis High School on Market and 3rd.

N. M. Williams - Principal Leath High School, Memphis High School.  First principal of Central High.

J. T. Leath -
Leath High School was named for him.  He was Supt of Education in 1869 and was the Son of Sarah Leath who founded Memphis' first orphanage, the Porter-Leath Orphanage in 1850.

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J. H. Barnum

From 1863-67, there was virtually no mention of  educating blacks or of black schools in Memphis.  In 1867 the State compelled all cities to educate blacks and by 1874 Memphis delegated the running of black schools to J. H. Barnum, who was named as the first Superintendent of Colored Schools. 

In 1871 Barnum had been principal of Lemoyne Owen College.  In 1873 he became principal of Clay Street School, the first recorded Black BRICK public school in Memphis.  Shortly afterwards he was promoted to Superintendent of Colored Schools.  His tenure in that position didn't last long, as he was replaced by B. K. Sampson in 1875.

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Green P. Hamilton

Green. P. Hamilton was born in Memphis in 1867 and was one of the city's pioneer black educators.  From childhood, his mother instilled in him the importance of education.  He was associated with the Memphis school system since 1884 and became Principal of Kortrecht High School in 1892.  As principal of Kortrecht High, he organized the first African American high school band in Memphis about 1900.   Professor Green was interested in the progress of his race and was one of the first African-American writers in Memphis to present historical information on citizens of color.  He was the author of two books:  The Bright Side of Memphis (1908) and Beacon Lights of the Race (1911).  Hamilton Elementary School, Hamilton Junior High, and Hamilton High are named in his honor.


Mrs. S. H. Thompson

Mrs. Thompson and her husband James arrived in Memphis in 1869, possibly from Ohio.  Her husband had his own business and became a justice of the peace.  She was hired by the schools in 1872 and was principal of the South Street School, then a teacher at the Clay Street School.  In 1873, her classes presented a concert and exhibition at the Greenlaw Opera House(See article below).  The year before, her name appeared in the newspaper when she requested a raise but was denied.  In 1875, she was involved in a lawsuit that showed a division between black people who were loyal to the white missionary teachers and those who thought that black people should control their own schools. (See article below).  She continued to teach until her death in 1880.

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B.K.Sampson - 2nd Principal of Clay School and Superintendent of "Colored Schools"

Early Teachers:  Mary Johnson - Mary Tyler - Elya Mitchell  - Sarah Clark
(Chelsea School) - Rose Kinney - Graftil Moody - Maria Rankin - Mattie Clouston and Celia Burton Burris, "a free black woman", opened a school in 1864.

Fannie Kidder -The first free colored school was opened in 1863 in a barrack building in South Memphis by Miss Fannie Kidder - "...a lady of culture and high Christian character from Illinois"

Julia B. Hooks - known more as an activist for civil rights than as an educator.

Ida B. Wells  - 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.

They are PDF files, so please use your BACK BUTTON to return to this page.



Below:  1881 article about the graduation exercises of the Clara Conway School

Below:  1868 article about an Exhibition at the Greenlaw Opera House, of the "Free Colored Schools" in Memphis.




Below:  1873 meeting about the  "colored" asking for better school buildings and better teachers who are also "colored".




* (1)  The Forum, 1922.  Published by Memphis City Schools






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