NASHVILLE, TN — When the Metro Nashville Public Schools System merged Pearl and Cohn high schools in 1983, alumni of Pearl High swung into gear trying to securer and save as much as they could of the 100-year-old school’s history.
Pearl’s history was also part of their own, they reasoned, and they did not want their history to be tossed on some scrap or trash pile. They knew that had already happened to hundreds of public schools –black and white– across the South, as scores of school districts buried important parts of that era’s history as they moved in the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s, to eliminate schools that were built and operated to enforce racial segregation in public education.
In the case of Pearl, considered one of the top public schools in the South during the nation’s post-Civil War era of racial segregation, alumni, lead by the late Ted Lenox, have spent some 30 years harvesting what pieces of the school’s history they can collect.
In the process, the Pearl High School Archives,sponsored by the Pearl High School Alumni Association, Inc., has collected year books, group and individual pictures of students, commencement programs,academic and athletic certificates and trophies, newspaper clips, graduating class composite picture boards and copies of e Growling Tiger, the school student newspaper.
This month,the alumni association is set to celebrate the renovation of its archives with a May 21 public open house. The free event, reacting nearly a year’s work by the small group of archive volunteers, promises visitors a refreshing walk through the history of Pearl and the thousands of students who have passed through its doors.
The event, which will include free refreshments, is set to begin at 5 p.m. at the Martin Luther King (MLK) Pearl High School in the old gymnasium on Johnston Avenue near 17th Avenue North. “There are students coming to MLK this year who have great grandparents who went to Pearl,” said alumni association interim chair Melvin Black, a 1955 graduate of the school who, after finishing college, taught history at Pearl for 10 years. Black is part the small alumni archive group that has carried the PHS history baton since Lenox’s death.
Black said the renovated archives has additional shelving for pictures and other items, re framed graduating class composite pictures, a special section featuring the Pearl High alumni who later participate in the history changing Freedom Rides in the 1960’s and more historical documents and pictures that help tell more of the Pearl High story. The arrangement of the large framed pictures has been reworked to improve one’s ability to see the displays.
Pearl is one of a handful of high schools in the state to have portions of their history saved from the trash pile. Alumni at the old Haynes, Cameron and East high schools have also assembled historical collections.
Separately, the Nashville Room in the downtown, main branch of the Nashville Public Library, has a general history section focusing on the city’s old public schools.
“Archives are extremely important,” said Linda T. Wynn, associate director for state programs at the Tennessee Historical Commission. “A lot of people have oral histories but they don’t have documentation” said
Wynn, a 1966 graduate of Pearl. “We need to have (proof of) that history.”