​Townsend School Continues to Educate and Inspire

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

Townsend School, the former site of Franklin County’s African-American high school, has new tenants: the Townsend Cultural Center dedicated to sharing and celebrating Townsend School’s rich history and the Franklin County Bridge Program, a path for guiding at risk youth to a life of positive action and thought.

Desegregation closed Townsend School in 1966. In subsequent years, the building housed the board of education, a kindergarten program and the Franklin County Alternative School. Since 2016, the building went largely unused except for GED preparation classes. In the summer of 2018, the board of education deeded the property to the county. Then Mayor Richard Stewart cited office space for business startups and a black heritage museum as possible uses.

The county has not received any requests from the business sector, according to new Mayor David Alexander. The GED classes have continued, however, and Townsend School’s rich and inspiring tradition lives on in the two new programs the county has welcomed to the building.

“We didn’t envision things moving this quickly,” said Karen Morris, secretary of the Townsend Cultural Center board of directors. Alums and children of alums are leading the effort assisted by Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation. Students help with fact checking, marketing and design. The newly formed 501(c)3 has already published a brochure and hosted two events, a meet and greet and a gathering targeting black churches. “That’s where our base is,” Morris stressed.

The center’s museum will be dedicated to Anderson “Doc” Townsend, the school’s namesake. Interpretive panels will highlight displays. One will feature Townsend’s 1865 discharge papers from the U.S. Colored Troops. Born a slave in Winchester in 1847, Townsend escaped, enlisted, after the war attended Nashville Normal and Bible Institute, and returned to Winchester where he taught in the county’s black schools for the next 50 years.

Townsend School’s proud sports legacy of state championship wins will have its own room displaying treasures such as trophies and footballs from winning games. Townsend alums as far away as California and Washington D.C. have sent display items. Morris is hoping for a football jersey.

The former gym-cafeteria with a stage will accommodate meeting and public speaking events. The MLK Foundation has already inquired about hosting a fundraiser there, Morris said.

Donations from the African-American community largely funded building the two schools, which have occupied the site—the Winchester Colored School burned in 1926 and the Townsend School replaced it. In that same tradition, community donations are funding transforming the space into a cultural center. Morris predicts an official opening at the end of next summer.

The Bridge program created by a grant written by the Franklin County Prevention Coalition has an equally inspiring mission.

“The program’s purpose is to reduce delinquency among youth,” said Director Jessica Sheehan. Participating youth in grades three through six meet one or more risk criteria: incarcerated or formerly incarcerated parents, substance abuse in the family, failing grades, delinquency in school, or foster care involvement.

After school twice a week, the children engage in activities founded in the premise positive actions lead to a positive identity.

“If you engage in positive activities, you think positive, feel positive and do positive activities in turn,” Sheehan explained. “It’s a cycle.”

Popular activities include high-intensity Zumba workouts, painting and art classes, playing Wiffle ball, and receiving golf instructions from law enforcement officials. “It helps them see law enforcement officials as people,” Sheehan stressed.

Friday Night Done Right events draw in the entire family to watch movies or play board games.

The program’s parenting workshops teach parents appropriate discipline strategies, how to talk about drugs and alcohol with their children and how to be a parent not a peer.

The program serves 42 youth. “We’re just going into our second year,” Sheehan said, “and we’ve already seen a lot of positive changes.”