Tennessee’s Equalization Schools: A Brief Context

Right before, and for more than a decade following the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision that declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, white public school officials across the southern states adopted a strategy of “equalizing” black school facilities with their white counterparts in efforts to avoid integration. This last-ditch attempt to finally live up to, or appear to live up to, the concept of “separate but equal” facilities for each race saw local school districts fund additions and improvements to extant school buildings as well as the construction of wholly new buildings for black students. In Tennessee, the funding of these new projects came largely from the state’s first retail sales tax in 1947.

Erected in the 1950s and 1960s, equalization schools are most often simple and unadorned with restrained International-Style architectural features. These character-defining features include low, horizontal massing, brick-clad exterior walls, and long bands of windows that light classrooms flanking long interior halls or corridors. Oftentimes, these buildings are nearly indistinguishable from those built for white children during the same era, and require one to read the landscape within which the school stands to better understand the significance of its origins.

For example, equalization schools are nearly always found near or within historically black neighborhoods. Historically black neighborhoods are often on the edge of town, segregated from historically white-owned residences and business; sometimes they are literally on the “other side of the tracks” if the town has or had rail service; sometimes they are on the opposite of side other landscape features such as rivers, ravines, or creeks; in the geographical “bottoms” of town where land may be less valuable as a result of soil quality or tendency to flood; on rocky hills or knolls, especially in towns with historic or current agricultural economies where such land was less desirable. In some Tennessee communities, such as Lewisburg in Marshall County, the town’s historically black neighborhood and equalization school is found near the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

As mentioned earlier, sometimes local school boards “improved” upon or expanded extant black school buildings in efforts to equalize them. This sometimes resulted in large, rambling buildings with many additions such as the National Register-listed Milan Polk Clark Enrichment Center (formerly Gibson County Training School, and later the Polk-Clark School), a c.1926 Rosenwald School which saw numerous additions throughout the 1950s. The Townsend School in Winchester, Franklin County, Tennessee, is a c.1933 building which saw additions in 1949, 1954, and the construction of a detached gym in 1962 before the county was forced to integrate in 1966.

Some equalization schools in Tennessee, such as the Daniel McKee School in the Shiloh community of Rutherford County and the Bridgeforth Middle School in Pulaski, Giles County, stand close to the earlier school buildings for black children that they replaced during that particular school district’s avoidance of Brown. Today, these buildings are in various states of use and repair. Some, such as Bridgeforth Middle in Pulaski, serve as either elementary or middle schools. Some, such as the equalization school in Lewisburg, house local boards of education. Others, such as the Daniel McKee School in Rutherford County, serve as special education schools or alternative schools. Still others have been boarded up and serve no current use, such as the equalization school in the historically black neighborhood of Woodbury in Cannon County.

Throughout the history of the United States, white supremacists and segregationists, if nothing else, were predictable in that they constantly evolved their tactics to retain power when black communities refused, resisted, and mobilized. And though, with this in mind, they are symbols of white officials’ reluctance to integrate schools and thus begin to provide equal education opportunities for white and black children, this strategy of equalization, of avoidance, that the schools represent, was the result of growing black resistance and momentum to upend the false “separate but equal” status quo that characterized the South’s public school system for nearly a century. And perhaps it is within this light, that preservationists can begin to see the continued tradition of resistance, evolved, but embedded within these restrained, and often mundane buildings that dot our landscape.