Pearl School

Nashville's first African-American public elementary school

School shaped lives of Nashville's black leaders for decades

The first African-American public primary school in Nashville was built on this site (then 217 S. Summer St) in 1893. The Pearl School was named for the first superintendent of Nashville schools, Joshua F. Pearl.

The new building was the pride of the Nashville Public School system. At the outset of the 1883 school year, the Board of Education reported in the Daily American newspaper that the leading improvements for the year were the two “new school buildings for colored children." The larger of the two projects was the Pearl School and the other was the Meigs School. The Pearl School building was “inside as well as out a model of architecture and finish.” The furniture was made of walnut and oak and included the latest educational technologies including desks with newly-patented ink wells in them. In 1885, the value of the property was estimated at $15,000.

James C. Napier (1845-1940), the era’s last African-American city councilman pushed for a public high school for Nashville African-Americans. Although the board passed that resolution in 1884, the School Board didn’t move to create the African-American high school until Sandy Porter attempted to enroll her black son in a white high school in 1886. The African-American high school started out at the Meigs School, but was rolled into the Pearl School in 1897.

This location for the building was in a prominent African-American neighborhood that was already home to many other elite institutions of higher education, including the African-American schools of Central Tennessee College and Meharry Medical School. All of these schools were eventually moved out of the downtown area, including the Pearl School itself, which relocated to larger facilities at 16th Ave. North in North Nashville and later at 17th Ave. North.

The school house remained vacant from 1917 until 1924 when the Nashville School Board reopened it as the Henry Cameron School, in honor of H. H. Cameron, a Pearl High teacher who died in World War I. The Cameron School also relocated in 1940. It is unclear when the original brick school building was destroyed, but the Sanborn Fire Insurance map that was updated until 1951 shows a building of a different shape on the site listed as the “5th Av. Terminal Inc. Motor Freight Sta.”

The Pearl School was part of a wave of schools built to educate the 4 million newly freed African-Americans in the years after the Civil War. One hundred African-American colleges were established in the U.S. from 1865-1910 and many students were educated with the objective of becoming primary school teachers. The Pearl School originally was the only African-American public school in the city to have white teachers. Beginning in 1887, though, the school employed African-American teachers. Schools like Fisk University fed the need for well-educated teachers at Pearl. For example, Lena Terrell Jackson (1865-1943), who taught Latin at Pearl High School for over 50 years, was born in a slave cabin, and earned a bachelor’s degree from Fisk in 1885 before entering teaching. Nearing retirement in 1939, Jackson reflected on her life’s work, “I have devoted my life to endeavor to uplift my race by teaching and instructing children, realizing that by helping promote the cause of education among the colored race and the developing of the mind, the great questions that are before my people can more easily and properly be met.” In her obituary, one former student remembered her knowledge and dedication, “She knew every word of every line of Caesar, Cicero and all of the other classics she taught. When we missed a word, she told us what it should have been, without ever looking at the book.”

Pearl High School was eventually combined with the Cohn High School as part of desegregation in the 1980s. In 1998, alumni of Pearl High School gathered to mark its centennial and reflect on the school’s legacy of educating Nashville’s African-American teenagers to the highest standards. The Pearl High School and Cameron High School alumni groups continue to memorialize these two important Nashville institutions.