Historic Structures

Douglass High School, Memphis Tennessee

Date added: May 18, 2022 Categories: Tennessee School

Throughout its history, Douglass High School was one of few high schools in Memphis for African American students. The irony of the "separate but equal law set out by Plessy v. Ferguson was that schools such as Douglass High School in Memphis and other areas in the south rarely received adequate funding for maintenance of the facility of educational materials. Nevertheless, the community members of Douglass provided the students with support by maintaining the facility, purchasing educational materials, and offering intellectual and moral encouragement. Douglass High School is significant to the Memphis/Shelby County area as the last African-American school built prior to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education integration edict. Douglass High School remained an African-American school after other schools in Memphis were integrated. In 1981, the pressures of integration forced Douglass to close it doors.

The community's support of the educational facility, the faculty, students, and Parent-Teachers Association of Douglass High School provided the leadership and organizational skills necessary for the community to endure financial hardships. Indeed, the school became a mutual aid society, providing stability, individual and community relief efforts and uplift. The tenacity and dedication demonstrated by these leaders allowed the community to thrive in a society otherwise beset with discrimination. Their efforts represent the resilience and standards of an African-American community determined to retain their pride and honor.

The Villa Land Company created the Douglass Place Community, circa 1902, as a rural subdivision exclusively for African Americans. It was named for anti-slavery leader, orator, and journalist Frederick Douglass. One of the first residents in the new Douglass community was Reverend W. A. Plummer, who was forced off his prime City land into order to make room for a white subdivision, circa 1900. At the time, the Douglass area was considered undesirable to white Memphis developers. Douglass was located outside the City limits near the Wolf River Flood Plain, was sparsely populated with a few African American families, and was considered a farming community. In compensation for making Reverend Plummer relocate, the county provided him fifty-three acres of land with the understanding that there would not be further encroachment. In turn, Reverend Plummer began selling three room shotgun homes to other African- American families. Consequently, Douglass Community became the second community in Memphis specifically intended for African Americans.

Over time, Douglass became a stable community of homeowners who were proud of their business, churches, and especially, their school. The growth of the neighborhood and the school was a reaction to the racial biases both nationally and locally. The perseverance of the community members who wished to create a safe haven for residents is evident in their efforts to develop the land surrounding their homes. For example, Douglass neighborhood became the site of the first park designed exclusively for African Americans in Memphis, eliminating their reliance on the "white" parks in the city. Until the 1960s, African American residents of Memphis were only allowed to visit most parks and the zoo on particular days at particular times. The community also constructed an orphanage for African-American children, developed a camp for the third largest African-American boy scout troop in the South, and built the first African- American golf course in the city.

When residents reflect upon their history, however, it is Douglass High School that they remember as symbolizing their dreams and pride. The City of Memphis from 1930 to 1946 made numerous renovations such as adding cafeterias, auditoriums, and additional classrooms to existing schools. A construction program funded by the Public Works Administration enabled these renovations and construction of six new schools, five built expressly for African-Americans. In Douglass, however, it was the students whom first demanded their own high school. In 1943, the county high school students from Douglass were required to commute over one hour to attend Manassas High School in the City. Furthermore, the students were forced to walk a considerable distance to the bus stops that did not yet extend into their neighborhood. Disgruntled and frustrated, twenty-one students in the eleventh and twelfth grades protested the commute, demanding that they be educated at their neighborhood school, Douglass. The principal supported the students by rearranging the teacher's assignments and providing them with a classroom in the 1937 PWA Colonial Revival Elementary and Junior High School. Consequently, the genesis for a community high school began from the students themselves. The PWA school was located on the site of the present auditorium. Support for a new high school building grew as community members recognized the potential asset a high school would bring to their neighborhood. In 1946, the initial phase of the dream of a community school was realized as the first seniors from the fledgling community high school received their diplomas.

It may be argued that the post war growth of Shelby County's African-American population prompted the development of Douglass High School. However, there is no doubt that the demands of the students and community encouraged the County School Board to build a high school in the rural community of Douglass. In July of 1949, as a result of their efforts and determination, the County began construction of a new school. Slated to contain thirty rooms, the school was built at a cost of $342,539 by Lee Construction Company on the corner of Mount Olive and Ash Streets near the new elementary school. The architectural firm, Norton and Rice, supervised the construction.

Within the spirited grass roots Douglass Community the determination to provide their children with the best education possible was demonstrated by the strong belief in the community education concept. They believed that the percentage of African-American children completing high school and, thus insuring their chance for a better future, would be best accomplished by educating their children within the proximity of the Douglass Community enabling the parents to have a high level of involvement in the Parent-Teacher Association. It is noteworthy that Douglass High School was the last school built as a segregated school in Memphis. Since construction was begun in 1949, prior to the Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the construction of a new school was within the "separate by equal" guidelines set out by Plessy v. Ferguson. Additions and upgrades to the complex were made after the Brown v. Board of Education edict (1954) were a means to placate the Douglass Community. Nevertheless, these improvements to the complex only heightened the community involvement and fierce pride in the school.

In many neighborhoods, schools were the most important community meeting places; and once in place, Douglass High School served this purpose well. It fostered the tradition of a mutual association by becoming a symbol of accomplishment and a source of pride and by facilitating community development. Not surprisingly, it was the students and faculty members of the school who became the leaders in the community. Racist policies and discrimination, as well as poverty and isolation, served to strengthen the bond among the neighborhood and bring the community together. Community members continually demonstrated their tenacity and dedication through their support of the school. Furthermore, although many struggled financially to maintain their homes and provide for their families, a fierce community pride developed due to the presence of Douglass High School.

An article announcing Memphis' annexation of Douglass in 1950 underscored this stability, cohesion, and pride. The front page article in the Memphis World, an African-American newspaper, announced the annexation of Douglass and the celebration that acknowledged this milestone. The reporter noted that its celebration was a rare occasion in which African American citizens marched through the streets of a community owned solely by community members, all of who were African Americans. Another article praised the progressive community's efforts and achievements.

Although the Douglass Community achieved their goal of a new high school, they experienced the same discriminatory policies that characterized segregated school systems throughout the South. African American schools rarely received the financial support awarded to white schools. It is noteworthy that East High School was built in 1949 in the most affluent white suburb of Memphis and was designed in the high style of Beaux Arts. Tacit recognition of this disparity in educational facilities was made by a Memphis School Board member in 1948 recommending that the "colored schools be given immediate attention--that they should be put in condition to meet the standards of the state." Despite this recommendation, Douglass High School, throughout its history, did not receive the financial support necessary to maintain the facility and provide educational materials to the students. Rather the community collectively organized to assure that the students were granted the opportunities and education otherwise denied to most African American students.

To provide a quality education for their children, the teachers and community members of Douglass were forced to rely on their own initiatives. Even after Douglass was annexed by the City school system, improvements and financial support were not forthcoming from the city. Inequities in the school system financial policy contributed to the hardships endured by the community. Initially, there was a great disparity in the salaries of African-American teachers and principals as compared to their white counterparts. In 1960 the salaries were not equal, but were significantly higher than in 1950. Also, the budget for school supplies was substantially lower for African-American schools than for white schools. Despite these inequities the school provided a good education with battered library books, borrowed band instruments, and discarded football uniforms. Treadwell High School, an all-white school, had the same school colors, maroon and gray. The community realized that Douglass High School could benefit from this commonality. As Treadwell upgraded their uniforms, arrangements were made for Douglass to receive the discarded band and football uniforms.

The City's dedication to the education of African Americans students was also tempered by the Southern, cotton-based economy. As late as the 1950s, despite child labor laws and compulsory education standards, the schools in Memphis/Shelby County area that encompassed the Douglass neighborhood, including the high school, closed for part of the autumn. It was deemed necessary to use the labor of the African American children in the cotton fields during these months. In 1949, for example, all the suburban "colored" schools, both elementary and high schools, were closed from September 16 to October 31.

To overcome these policies, leadership from within the community was paramount to the success of the school. School administrators were instrumental in creating the environment necessary to learn and succeed. The principal at the time of the annexation of Douglass into the city system, "Professor" L. C. "Lucky" Sharpe, strove to create a positive image of the school. This resulted in the increase of the status of Douglass School and image of the community at large. He was praised and admired for developing a curriculum at Douglass comparable to any other City school, by offering extra curricular activities for the students and by constructing an athletic field in Douglass Park. His successor, Principal Jesse D. Springer, spent a great deal of his time attempting to obtain better supplies for the students. As one graduate of the 1950 class explained, "we had a lot of spirit. See, Douglass was almost an outcast to the other schools." Alumni concur that "most of the leadership of the Douglass community came through the school."

Even before the founding of the school, the Douglass-Bungalow-Crump Civic League was organized in 1931. The League began efforts towards a clean-up/fix-up campaign in the neighborhood. Included among their concerns were the unpaved, muddy streets and the lack of electrical power, lighting, and parks. After Douglass High School opened in 1950, most of the League's leadership originated from the school's Parent- Teacher Association. Gradual progress was made in the Douglass Community through this leadership. During the period of 1950-1960 improvements were made such as street lights, an improved sewage system, as well as sidewalks on Mount Olive Street. Even with these improvements the area lacked many of the amenities of neighboring areas of the city. However, the League persisted in their efforts lobbying for many basic needs as late as 1972. The conditions of the neighborhood prompted the League to invite the Community Relations Committee of Memphis to tour the community, pointing out the poor conditions of the streets and the lack of curbs and gutters. Other complaints included the presence of dead-end streets due to drainage ditches in the middle of the community, the unsightly auto junkyard and livestock yard, and the lack of adequate park facilities. At the time, Douglass Park was one of the few large parks in the City without a pool or adequate baseball diamond. The tour prompted Reverend James L. Netters, special assistant to then Mayor Wyeth Chandler, to remark, "This is possibly one of the most neglected areas in the City. After many delays, the remaining gravel streets in the Douglass Community were paved in 1977.

The Douglass-Bungalow-Crump Civic League provided other services to the community as well. When Odessa Dickens, a well-known amateur golfer and graduate of Douglass, became president of the League from the 1940s to the 1960s, the group sponsored a health center and a free eye and dental clinic. All of these services were made available at Douglass High School. One of the most significant accomplishments of the League was the dramatic increase of voter registration of African-Americans in the community during the 1950-1960 period giving them a stronger sense of participation in the political process.

Another example of the school's support of the Douglass community was the canning program initiated during the Great Depression. "Lucky Sharpe," then principal of Douglass Junior High, began the program to provide food for those in need. The successful program prompted Eleanor Roosevelt to visit the community in 1937 commending their efforts. This same program offered food and supplies for the refugees of the 1937 flood in Memphis. When Douglass High School was built, the program continued with the same enthusiasm and dedication. Later the program was renamed the Douglass School Community Program and continued to provide canning facilities and garden space to the community members. This program prompted the School Board to praise Douglass High School in 1950 for its "outstanding contribution made by the school officials in helping to improve the quality of life in that community." That year there were 1,100 individual gardens on the four acre school grounds netting 15,000 cans of food. During the 1950s, the canning program was expanded to aid the school children as well. Under the leadership of two PTA members, Laura Tyus, the first Douglass High School PTA president, circa 1950, and Bessie Harris, circa 1950, the school operated a canning machine for the benefit of all community members. In return for this service, the people were expected to donate one can to the school for every three cans produced. These donations enabled the school to provide a hot lunch to all students. Mrs. Laura Tyus cordinated projects to aid both the students and the neighborhood. Under her leadership, the PTA coordinated neighborhood garbage pickup, a neighborhood clean-up campaign, and a plant exchange, circa 1950-1960. In addition, she organized a clothing center at the school for children in need of shoes and clothes. Her efforts extended to providing evening programs at the high school for both the students and the community. Perhaps, most impressive, was her organization of the Pink Rose Club. This fund-raising group raised enough money through garden sales to purchase a piano for the students.

Later PTA presidents, including Blondale Cross, Katherine Neely, Pocohantas Boykins, and Percy Williams, continued the practices of their predecessors and conducted new programs for the school and the community until the late 1970s. They sponsored Founders Day and Family Night for the students and community members, attended state and local conventions, and helped sponsor ROTC at the school. The Douglass High School PTA won numerous area PTA membership drives by encouraging all the parents in the community to become involved in their children's education. Nearly all the parents, as well as some community members who did not have children, joined the PTA. Fund-raising drives sponsored by the PTA enabled the school to purchase a trophy case, drapes for the stage, typewriters, band uniforms, and trees for planting on Arbor Day.

Douglass High School also provided a day-care center for children of all ages of working parents. Until the late 1970s, many Douglass residents worked at one of the factories in the surrounding area, including Cribbs Sausage, Quaker Oats, Cudahay Lard Factory, Wood's Lumber Company, Buckeye Cotton Oil Company, and Forrest Product Chemical Company. At a time when many African Americans were relegated to the less desirable and financially limited positions, this service was crucial to sustaining the health of the community. In turn, parents looked forward to the day when their children would graduate from Douglass High School and fare better in society.

The Independent Citizens Council, formed by faculty and PTA members in the 1950s, was created to influence public policy. Together they began attending City Board hearings to demand city bus routes extend into their neighborhood. The group was successful in articulating their demands and was granted service to the area in a timely manner.

Another group, organized by the principal of Douglass High School, sought similar goals. The Douglass Improvement Council, formed in the 1970s, was organized to coordinate efforts at improving the homes, streets and park in the community. The principal contracted with painters and carpenters in the area to begin rehabilitation of structures that did not meet the standards of the Memphis City codes. Like the Independent Citizens Council, the Douglass Improvement Council hoped to stem an exodus of people from the community. By 1975 the Douglass Improvement Council, under the leadership of 24 board members, represented every organization in the community. More importantly, according to the group's secretary, Mary Love, the organization was supported by the principal, the faculty and the parents of high school students. Their efforts were rewarded with a three million dollar grant from the City to improve the conditions of the neighborhood. When the City provided only ten percent of this money, the local NAACP and Congressman Harold Ford, Sr. spoke up for community members.

At Douglass High School, materials and programs typically sponsored by the school board and purchased by the City became the responsibility of all community members. Building upon the tradition of beneficial societies and self-help associations, the high school's PTA helped define and advance the conditions of the school, community, and race. Mildred Finley, an active member of the PTA, was proud of the fact that members of the community were "self-help people" who take care of each other. Many of the members were especially thankful to the leaders of the school for helping the community throughout its history. A member of the research team of the Douglass High School and Douglass Community succinctly expressed the importance of the school to the community. "I think the feeling that the school was so vital to the community," voiced Vida Anderson, that it "helps to explain the involvement of the PTA in virtually everything that would benefit the community as a whole in Douglass."

In turn, the community came to the aid of students when they needed food, supplies, or morale support. For example, Clover Farm Dairy, located in the vicinity, contributed milk to the children at the school.

The Industrial Women's Sewing Circle raised scholarship money for students of the school to attend LeMoyne Owen College and other African American colleges. Edward "Buddy" Johnson, who owned a store in the community, provided the children with toys and dolls at Christmas and bought crates of eggs for the school to decorate at Easter. Most importantly, however, he bought one instrument for the high school band each year. Graduates at Douglass are thankful for his support, which contributed to the success of the band as the Douglass High School Marching Band and Majorettes. The band and majorettes won the first place prize from 1954-1957 in the Memphis Annual Cotton Carnival celebration. Mr. Elbert J. Curry, who owned W. J. Curry and Sons, sponsored a Christmas party each year at Douglass High School. The students themselves fostered pride and spirit among the community members. These students thank the teachers for nurturing this pride. One graduate explained that the teachers "knew that we were growing up in a segregated community, and they knew that we had to be ready to deal with whatever was out there when we left Douglass." For many of the students, the teachers imbued a "fighting spirit" that would assure their success after high school.

Indeed many of the graduates of Douglass High School became successful in their careers, often confronting and dismantling racial barriers. Two graduates of Douglass refused to accept the discriminatory bias of Memphis State University. Ralph Prater and Eleanor Gandy, Douglass graduates of 1958, sued the University along with six other students for denying African Americans admission. One year later, in 1959, they were rewarded for their struggle and given permission to attend the University, with certain stipulations. They had to be escorted by state troopers and they were required to leave the campus at noon each day. It was not until 1964 that they were granted full participation in the athletic program at the University. Other Douglass students also fought to break down racial barriers. Marion Barry, who attended the school became Mayor of Washington, D.C. Freddie Ford and Ben Branch became successful musicians, playing with Finius Newborne and the Breadbasket Band, respectively. In 1962 Armetta Taylor Haley became one of the first women to be employed by the Postal Service. Other students have become successful lawyers, doctors, professors, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs.

The graduates of Douglass High School continue to meet each year for a reunion, drawing former students and faculty members from around the country. Although their community was located "across the tracks" in those years they assert that the school "did an excellent job of producing citizens that were, and are, to be highly admired." Their elaborate reunions seek to retain that sprit. Indeed, while the City may have built Douglass High School, it was the community that made it survive and endure. The Alumni Association, with established chapters in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, asserts that the tangible sense of community that emerged from the halls of Douglass High School are largely responsible for their own success after graduation. To maintain that success, they continue to use the proceeds from their annual Douglass Expo and Douglass Alumni Association reunions to provide scholarships to Douglass community youths.

It is noteworthy that Douglass High School was the last school built as a segregated school in Memphis. Douglass community and Douglass High School existed because of segregation, it disintegrated because the integration of public school system during the 1970s overlooked both the community and the school. The City of Memphis managed to postpone the dictates of Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 for several years. It was not until 1960 that a suit was filed in federal court demanding desegregation in the Memphis Public Schools. The efforts of activists were thwarted by Judge Marion S. Boyd in April 1961 when he ruled that the Memphis Public School System should not allow immediate desegregation. Recognizing that an appeal would spark public confrontation and protest, the Memphis School Board preempted such incidents by slowly desegregating the schools, beginning with the first through third grades. Nevertheless, by 1967 there were only 287 African American students, out of a total of 54,407 attending integrated schools. Those seeking desegregation believed that it was the only means to assure that African American students would receive a quality education. Despite the drawbacks of a segregated system, however, desegregation was not the goal of all African-American activists. While many sought desegregation, parallel demonstrations were held for equal education in segregated African-American schools. Activists demanded that the board hire more African-American teachers for the African-American high schools, and that the board begin to employ African Americans within the administration. Several hundred African Americans picketed the School Board building to enforce these demands and garner support for their cause.

In the Douglass community, such demands were especially important. The community did not want to lose its school. The Memphis Board of Education, under Judge McRae's jurisdiction, enacted "plan Z" to desegregate City schools in 1973. Half of the Douglass students were bussed to white schools, and the junior high school students were sent to Gragg School. In turn, white students were assigned to attend Douglass and white teachers were hired to integrate the faculty. With attempts to implement this plan, the general enrollment gradually decreased. As a result of the poor enforcement of this integration policy, enrollment dropped to less than 500 students, prompting the City to consider closing Douglass High School. This decision did not pass without protest. Parents stormed the school board meetings to retain their school. Ironically, this activism and commitment seems to have simply hastened the school's demise. John Richardson, a graduate of Douglass High School, distinctly remembers that, "they were considering not closing it down, but some of the parents got so angry at the board meeting that some of the board members decided to just shut them down out of spite." Douglass High School that had served as the focal point of the community, providing leadership and nurturing pride, closed in 1981. Once the center of the community, it became a ghostly edifice symbolizing the decay of the community. As Richardson noted, "When our school died, the community died along with it . .. The school was the center of the community . . . [and] was considered our home. We took care of it, and it took care of us." The Memphis Commercial Appeal had praised Douglass community as a "neighborhood that refused to decay." However, without the school to foster cohesion, communication, and spirit, decay was inevitable. The school stands vacant symbolizing the history of the school system and the determination of an otherwise marginalized community. One former graduate, Mrs. Margarette Edmond, expressed the importance of the school to the community. She stated, "To me, the school is important to our neighborhood because it is our landmark. To us, it's like the Statue of Liberty."

Throughout its history, the school became the focal point for community relations and the means by which cohesion and stability was achieved. Indeed, to the people of Douglass Community, the education of their children seemed the most tangible means of fighting discrimination and achieving success in an otherwise racist world. As one graduate noted, "It's not a nice community in the sense that there's not a lot of real nice houses, but those people had a whole lot of pride about themselves and their school."

Melrose High School in the Orange Mound Community, the first African-American neighborhood, also exhibited a high level of involvement in school and civic affairs as exemplified by Douglass High School. The Orange Mound Community dramatically increased voter registration among the African-American community and was very active in similar community outreach programs.