by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
Ninety years ago, what would soon be Franklin County’s first African-American high school, opened its doors to students. For a few years, Townsend School only offered instruction through the eighth grade, but in 1934 the first high school graduating class received their diplomas.
Since 1911, the white children of Franklin County had free public high school education available to them.
The Townsend School design—five classrooms and an auditorium—suggest the African-American community envisioned a 12-grade facility from the beginning.
The Townsend School replaced the four-room Winchester Colored School that occupied the site until a fire destroyed the wood-frame building in 1926. Nearly half of the Winchester Colored School was paid for with donations, $1,700 from the local African-American community and $1,100 from philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, CEO of Sears, Roebuck, and Company. An endowment established by Rosenwald helped build more than 4,000 rural African-American schools across the South, including the African-American elementary school in Cowan.
Committed to rebuilding the Winchester Colored School, the African-American community again joined forces contributing the bricks and much of the labor for the five-classroom building and auditorium.
Originally called Townsend Training School, the school was named after the Reverend “Doc” Anderson Townsend. Born a slave in Franklin County in 1848 and taught to read by his first owner, Solomon Coover, Townsend escaped during the Civil War, joined the Union army, and attended Nashville Normal and Bible Institute when the war ended. In 1869, he returned to Franklin County where he taught in local African-American schools for the next 50 years.
Satellite schools throughout the county sent their children to Townsend to complete their education after the eighth grade, with records naming as many as 14 African-American elementary schools, Sewanee’s Kennerly School among them. Significantly, Kennerly School boasted water-toilets, showers, hot air heat, and a lunchroom, better facilities than some of the white schools. A lawsuit filed in 1962 led to a 1964 ruling desegregating the Franklin County Schools. The plaintiffs were four white families from Sewanee, Bates, Cameron, Camp, and Goodstein, two African-American families from Sewanee, Turner and Staten, and two African-American families from Winchester, Hill and Sisk.
A member of Townsend’s last graduating class, 1966, Mike Blackwell said, “During my freshman year, 1962, they dedicated the new gym.” The new addition to the building also included a library, science lab, and offices, with dressing rooms for sporting events in the basement. This was, in fact, the school’s third gym.
“By my sophomore year, we knew the school would close,” Blackwell said, and he wonders if the addition was “built as a token. ‘We’ll do this for you, and you stay there.’”
Blackwell has fond memories of Townsend. “The classes were small, and you knew everyone. School spirit was strong.”
According to Blackwell, Townsend was enlarged at least two times. When he attended, the home economics room occupied what had been the auditorium in the original building with the cafeteria in the basement. The high school was in the rear part of the building. A new gym had been added to the original structure, as well as industrial arts and science labs.
After Townsend School closed, the building housed the board of education until 1994, a kindergarten program until 2007, and from 2006-2016, the Franklin County Alternative School. The 1962 addition houses the Campora Family Resource Center and the Franklin County Prevention Coalition. Several elementary schools use the gym for sporting events.
The board of education has received two requests to purchase portions of the property and a third request to establish a Head Start program at the old school.
Neighborhood residents favor tearing down the old part of the school and using the bricks to erect a memorial to the school’s proud and determined heritage.
Making repairs to the aging structure “would be like putting lipstick on a pig” Blackwell insists.
After high school, Blackwell graduated from Tennessee State and worked most of his life as a civil engineer, first for TVA then at AEDC. He’s well qualified to offer an opinion on the building’s feeble condition.
A representative from the Rosenwald School Initiative, a collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, visited Townsend School but determined too much had changed for the school to qualify for funds for restoration.
Blackwell expressed concern about what might be erected on the site if the school district sells the property.
His brother Floyd Blackwell addressed the board of education at the Aug. 14 meeting on behalf of the Friends of Townsend Coalition. A former Franklin County High School (FCHS) assistant principal and former director of the alternative school, he pointed to the example of the old FCHS, which was torn down. The property will soon be put to good use as the site of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology.
The school system should retain ownership of the Townsend School property the Blackwell brothers stressed.
“We want to be involved” in decisions regarding the property’s future Floyd Blackwell told the school board.
The neighboring residents have good reason to be apprehensive. “In the summer of 1966 after the last class graduated from Townsend, they destroyed everything—trophies, graduation pictures, awards—everything was thrown in the garbage,” Mike Blackwell said. “No one’s happy with what’s happened so far.”
In 1890, fore thinking African-American leaders in the Winchester community chartered an institute of higher learning, proposing as a location the four-acre tract where Townsend School now stands. Although Winchester University was never established, the four-acre site represents the hope of the past and the promise of the future.
It is in that spirit Mike Blackwell insists, “We want to see the land reclaimed.”