Elementary And Secondary Education
Class picture at Nelson-Merry School, Nashville, 1910.

Elementary and Secondary Education

From Tennessee’s earliest beginnings, the state’s inhabitants have expressed concern about the education of their children. In fact, even before Tennessee became a state, residents established private educational institutions. Despite these private efforts, however, the state’s first constitution in 1796 did not even mention education. Official recognition of public education finally came in 1806 with the passage of the Cession Act. This compact with the federal government required Tennessee to furnish one hundred thousand acres of land for two colleges and to reserve an additional one hundred thousand acres for the purpose of establishing an academy in each county. The same year, the Tennessee General Assembly established academies in each of the existing twenty-seven counties of the state.

After this initial concession to education in 1806, many years passed before the state made any serious attempts to establish a workable system of public schools. Although the general assembly enacted measures in the name of public education in 1815, 1817, 1823, 1827, and 1830, the statutes generally had no impact because they lacked effective machinery to compel their enforcement and failed to provide for adequate funding. The state’s inefficient public schools lacked adequate funding and were administered by independent county boards, whose members served without compensation.

Distressed by the state’s school system and encouraged by a national climate of school reform, some Tennesseans pushed for reform in the state constitutional convention in 1834. In response, Tennessee’s new constitution of 1835 included a provision for education declaring that the general diffusion of knowledge was essential to the preservation of the state’s democratic institutions. It admonished the Tennessee General Assembly “to cherish literature and science.” The constitution further recommended that the general assembly should be required to appoint a board of commissioners to oversee the state’s public school fund.

One year later the general assembly passed a law designed to centralize the administration of state schools. It provided for a state superintendent of public instruction elected to a two-year term by a joint vote of the general assembly. The position paid $1,500 per annum. In February 1836, Robert H. McEwen was elected as Tennessee’s first state superintendent of public instruction. During the four years of his administration, McEwen made a number of recommendations for improvement of Tennessee’s school system, including gradation of schools, improvement of school house construction, per diem allowances for school commissioners, and authorization of the superintendent to publish a biannual periodical designed to promote education. McEwen’s interest in reform was consistent with a similar contemporary reform impulse in the North. Consequently, the superintendent’s official reports regularly included excerpts from a number of northern school reformers, including Horace Mann.

Despite official state interest in public school reform, however, most Tennesseans still remained much more committed to private rather than public education. McEwen succinctly acknowledged this reality when he declared, “Public schools sustained exclusively by public funds have seldom been known to succeed well for any length of time.” (1) McEwen’s less-than-efficient administration of the state school fund made matters even worse. A special investigative committee appointed by the general assembly found that the school fund had been repeatedly plundered. In the wake of the damning report, Governor James K. Polk sued McEwen.

In 1847 the remnants of the state’s educational reform forces convened in Knoxville to conduct an inquiry into the condition of the public schools. The convention concluded that the state’s school districts were refusing to comply with the conditions of the school law which required the regular election of school commissioners and the provision of physical facilities for schools. In response, Governor Neill S. Brown made a revolutionary recommendation, suggesting direct taxation as the most expedient means for increasing the common school fund. His recommendation fell on deaf ears, however, and the general assembly refused to enact legislation to provide for direct taxation.

In 1853 public education in Tennessee finally received a sincere commitment from a state chief executive. In his message to the general assembly, Governor Andrew Johnson expressed deep concern for the inadequacy of the state’s public education system. He readily admitted that the system was failing to fulfill the dictates of the state constitution, but maintained that much of the blame for that failure could be traced to the inadequacy of the school fund. Johnson deplored the ineffectiveness of the public schools that did exist and charged that these inferior facilities tended to be an impediment to community initiatives and prevented other attempts to create privately funded schools. The governor’s distress over the inadequacy of the public school fund prompted him to pledge additional revenue from taxation to the system. Despite his commitment, the establishment of a state public education system was tabled with the approach of the Civil War.

When the war ended, Johnson, now president of the United States, faced the difficulties associated with the monumental task of reconstructing the nation. At the same time, the Tennessee General Assembly faced the equally difficult task of rehabilitating its war-torn state. As part of that rehabilitation process, Tennessee legislators attempted to resurrect the public school system. In March 1867 the legislature passed an act for the reorganization, supervision, and maintenance of common schools. The statute provided for the reestablishment of the office of state superintendent of education, furnished additional sources of revenue, and provided county supervision for the fledgling system.

Solving the system’s administrative and financial woes proved to be exceedingly difficult for these legislators, but the existence of thousands of newly freed black Tennesseans clamoring for educational opportunities represented an equally difficult and emotional challenge to postwar education supporters. After much heated debate, the general assembly reluctantly agreed to make provisions for the education of the state’s black youth, but they clearly specified that those provisions would be segregated. Their determination to maintain two separate school systems had profound consequences in postwar Tennessee, with little taxable property after the devastation from the war and the emancipation of the slaves. In view of this bleak economic reality, the general assembly’s determination to establish two mutually exclusive school systems presented a most formidable challenge indeed. In this atmosphere, Tennessee’s school fund grew slowly. One Freedmen’s Bureau official’s personal observations revealed that some counties paid only a portion of their assessment, a situation guaranteed to result in a slow accumulation of the school fund. In 1891 the permanent school fund amounted to only $150,000, on which the state paid 6 percent per annum.

As the end of the nineteenth century approached, two public education systems functioned in the state: one black, one white, and both impoverished. State administrators willingly admitted that segregation had a detrimental effect on the education of African American and white students alike. One reasoned, “It is impossible to locate schools at present, as to place them within convenient reach of all the children of the population in the State, owing to the sparseness of the population in many sections. The consequence is, in some localities one race suffers; in others, the other.” (2)

In the midst of all this talk of separation, the state’s freedmen were determined to move forward. If the state would not provide them with adequate educational opportunities, they would do it themselves. Numerous reports issued by officials from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands recognized the eagerness of Tennessee freedmen to accumulate school property and defray the cost of teachers’ expenses. According to statistical data released by the bureau, black Tennesseans had acquired school property as early as the fall of 1866. In subsequent months, the freedmen’s interest in actively promoting their own education continued to increase in intensity despite vigorous attempts by whites to discourage them. One bureau official observed, “The desire of the freed people to own school property is increasing and 20 school houses are now reported as belonging to them. One school has been closed on account of the white people refusing to rent a building for it; and another because of the alarming demonstrations against the teacher.” (3) Despite the sometimes violent white opposition to their efforts, however, by May 1870, the last date for which the bureau provided such data, the freedmen had managed to hold onto thirty school buildings.

After the bureau ceased to exist in 1872, many of the black Tennessee schools it had helped to support were taken over by the state. Likewise, by the late nineteenth century the state also assumed control over a number of black schools that had been founded by northern church missionary societies in postwar Tennessee. Despite these additions, Tennessee’s black public schools remained inadequate. At the same time, the state’s white schools were only marginally better.

Many of these schools, especially in the rural areas, were only in session a few months out of every year. Furthermore, until very late in the century Tennessee’s public schools concentrated on the primary level. The state legislature did not pass a statute providing for the establishment of secondary schools until 1885. This statute empowered “municipal corporations to levy additional taxes and to establish graded high schools.” Consequently, only urban dwellers benefited. Then, in 1891, the general assembly granted each county the option of establishing secondary school facilities. Not until 1899 did Tennessee law require the establishment of facilities for secondary education in each county. In that year, the general assembly empowered each county court to levy special taxes for the establishment and support of a county high school. The legislature further stipulated that the county high schools would not be permitted to draw any money from the regular fund appropriated to the districts.

As the twentieth century approached, Tennessee clearly had made progress in the area of public education, but much remained to be done. The state operated with two functioning school systems, but both were inadequate and underfunded. The new century ushered in continued progress, but it also brought new problems. Some progress occurred because of help from outside the state, including the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Rosenwald, a northern philanthropist, established a fund to aid in the construction of rural public schools for black children. Although southern education was impoverished generally, rural black children suffered from the most extreme deficits. Between 1914 and 1927 the Rosenwald Fund contributed $214,700 to various rural communities in Tennessee for the building of schoolhouses for black children. The contributions were conditional on the raising of matching funds by the communities, and black Tennesseans donated $242,298 to these projects. At the same time, the state contributed $890,520 in tax dollars, and white Tennesseans gave an additional $21,977.

Tax revenues for Tennessee education rose dramatically during the 1920s, but during the next decade, the state’s schools again suffered financial reverses ushered in by the Great Depression. Finances, however, were not the only challenge facing public education in this era. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People initiated court challenges against unequal education based on race, and their first successes came in the 1930s. By the mid 1950s the United State Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public education, and Tennessee, along with the rest of the South, faced one of the most difficult challenges since the Civil War. Communities all over the state feared the worst as they observed integration difficulties in surrounding states.

While there were examples of unrest and destruction of property–most notably the bombing of Clinton High School in 1956–there were fewer violent confrontations in Tennessee than in surrounding states. Furthermore, the public pronouncements on integration by Tennessee public officials stood in sharp contrast to the inflammatory rhetoric of officials in surrounding states. The conciliatory tone of Tennessee Governor Frank G. Clement provides a graphic example. Clement urged his constituents to respect the Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation because it was the law of the land.

In the years since the 1960s Tennessee communities have continued to wrestle with the challenge of integrating faculties, administrations, and student bodies in the public schools. The process has been slow and the results incomplete. At the same time, communities have continued to search for ways to ensure adequate funding of their schools. This is often particularly difficult without a state income tax or state lottery. Thus, as Tennessee’s public schools face the twenty-first century, they are still seeking to solve some of the same old problems. Nevertheless, despite the problems, the dual systems of public education, so painfully born in the aftermath of the Civil War, have finally become one.

Suggested Reading

James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (1988); Charles W. Dabney, Universal Education in the South (1936; reprint, 1969); Edgar Knight, A Documentary History of Education in the South before 1860 (1950); Robert Margo, Race and Schooling in the South, 1880-1950 (1990); William Vaughn, School for All: The Blacks and Public Education in the South, 1865-1877 (1974)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Elementary and Secondary Education
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 18, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 1, 2019