February 23, 2009 – The Market Street Community Center building was packed on Saturday as the Wilson County Civic League, Inc. dedicated a historical marker in front of the facility and praised teachers who came up through the ranks of the former Wilson County Training and High School there.
Lebanon's school for African Americans was started originally at the Market Street location in 1916 as one of the more than 5,000 schools built by Julius Rosenwald.
Rosenwald, born in 1862, was one of the presidents of the Sears Corporation. He contributed large donations of money to educational institutions, museums and other organizations. He took specific interest in the plight of African Americans coming out of the slave era.
As a result, he donated large sums of money for the construction of schools, which became known as "Rosenwald Schools," in poor, rural and predominantly black school districts in 15 states, including Tennessee. The schools were built with the assistance of the African American community Because of the dedication and efforts of the teachers over the years, the school turned out many teachers, doctors, preachers, lawyers, social workers, state employees and other active and good citizens of the community.
Today, the Market Street Community Center houses the offices of the Wilson County Civic League, the summer arts academy, the tutoring program, the recreational program, the senior citizen's program, the mature workers program sponsored by the National Council on Aging and the Pre-K program which is run by descendants of the teachers and students from the Rosenwald days.
Philip Craighead, Don Fox, Kevin Huddleston, State Representative Stratton Bone and Linda T. Wynn, assistant director of the state program for the Tennessee State Historical Commission, were among the distinguished crowd on hand for the historical dedication. Ronnie Kelly, who came to the school when he was in the fifth grade, opened the ceremony and introduced the emcee for the day, Mrs. Hattie Bryant, who was a student and a teacher there. Born in 1923, Bryant started at the school in 1929 when it had seven students and a teacher. She came back to teach in 1944.
"I see some of my students here today for which I'm proud," she said. "The teachers back then were more than teachers, they were people who took care of you. If you needed a coat, they got you one. If you needed a meal, you got food. There were seven kids in my family and we shared our school books. We had a great PTA and support system. I hope that by making this building a historical monument, children will know what a dedicated bunch of people were here behind it."
William Vantrease, 90 years young, was on hand to be praised and lauded by Bryant and others as "the best principle I ever had or worked under." Vantrease went to Watertown grammar school, but came to Lebanon to attend high school.
"If it hadn't been for Rosenwald, many of us wouldn't have been able to attend school," he admitted. He started teaching in 1939, first became principle in Lebanon in 1942. The Army drafted him soon after that. Upon discharge, he went back to school and graduated from the University of Minnesota. In 1953, he was called back to serve as principle in Lebanon again and stayed until it closed in 1969 when he went to Walter J. Baird and served until his retirement.
Bryant then introduced Inez Crutchfield, her sister-in-law who works in politics in Nashville and was another Rosenwald product whose mother also taught here. She said she didn't really recognize how wonderful the school was until much later.
She began to do a rundown on the teachers and heads would nod as she related their contributions.
Some of the other teachers recognized and talked about included Marie Burton, Jenella Young, Willie Watkins, Nina Gray (12 in her family all attended,) Doris (White) McKinley, Virginia (Watkins) Edmondson, Leonard Morton (band leader and music teacher), Dorris Armstrong, Fannie Lester, Loucille Smith, Marne Ballard, Maggie Jackson and Maggie Benson.
Bryant, who taught sixth grade for 20 years and Junior High for 13 years, sighed as she looked around the room and said, "Looking out at so many of my students, I guess I did something right. I kept most of them out of jail."
Henry Harris was typical of the people in the audience Saturday. He started at Rosenwald school in 1946 and then went to Wilson County Training School in 1956.
"It was a great experience. My parents had died and I was having a rather tough time getting through, but W. A, Ballard was a big help when he was principle and Marie Burton was the greatest teacher I ever had. If kids needed anything, she saw to it they got it," he said. "The school did everything it could for its students. Today, I have three kids, all college graduates with one of them a preacher."
Tiffany McHenry was on hand for the ceremony as a representative of the new generation while being tied to the generations past. As teacher at the Pre-K now housed in the dedicated building, McHenry can certainly appreciate the past and provides a continuing legacy because her grandmother, Billie Wharton, was head majorette under bandleader Morton. Principle Vantrease was her aunt's grandfather and Marie Burton is her great grandmother. McHenry teaches 20 kids in her Pre-K under the direction of Penny Thompson.
Following the ceremony, everybody moved outside for the unveiling of the historical marker that's been erected in front of the building.