A Brief History of Sewanee Elementary School

In 1950 the Civic Association also solicited funds to build a permanent schoolhouse for the African-American children. Made of concrete blocks, the school had a large classroom, bathroom, restrooms and kitchen and was named after John “Fess” Kennerly who had devoted much of his life to educating the children. After his death in 1949 his wife, Mrs. Gertrude Kennerly was employed as the teacher.

By the end of the 1940’s and the early 1950’s the needs for repairs and expansion began to outpace the ability of the Civic Association and donations from the members of Sewanee and the other small mountaintop communities to fund the school. Negotiations began in 1949 to turn the school building over to the County in exchange for an addition of a gymnasium and lunchroom. This was finally accomplished in 1955. A quote from the 1956 PTA newsletter written by James E. Thorogood summarizes this process best:

“Until last summer, the University owned the Public School, and the Civic Association had a School Committee, which tried to look after the school. The County rented the school from us, but we had to do the repairs, replace worn-out roofs, floors, plumbing, furnace, etc. We had to pay the insurance, pay part of the janitor’s wages, and do any improvements we could. This would have cost about $5,000 a year to do a good job, but the County would only pay us $1,000 a year (rent). By last spring the furnace was completely worn out and could not be used anymore. The Civic Association had no money for replacement of the furnace or anything else. It looked as though we would have to close down the school when cold weather came.

At this point, since we were unable to take care of the school ourselves, it was suggested that we strike a bargain with the County. The Civic Association got permission from the University which owns the building and the land to turn the school over to the County provided the County would make certain improvements, give us a new furnace and cafeteria, and take responsibility for keeping up the school in the future.

This was done. The County authorized $50,000 for a new furnace and other improvements.”

Thorogood finished this report by saying, “I don’t believe there is another town in the world with so many generous and public-spirited citizens and I wish I could mention every person by name.” PTA Chairman, Mrs. Robert P. Moore added, “A community is unquestionably reflected in its school and the reverse is also true. We point with pride and gratitude to our Sewanee Public School and the accomplishments of this year as very real evidence of a true spirit of community.”

In 1960 two more classrooms were needed and the county built the first brick addition next to the stone school. At this time the Sewanee Civic Association petitioned to integrate the school starting one grade at a time with the first grade. This did not occur. In 1964 the County lost an integration suit filed by eight families in the county. In order to have all the children in the Sewanee area go together to school in one building the Sewanee Civic Association had a town meeting to discuss the need for an additional four classrooms. A portion of a 1965 letter written to the community by the Community Chest chairman of the Civic Association, T. Felder Dorn eloquently sums up the results:

“Slightly over a year ago, our community was faced with a crisis in our public school. The Sewanee Public School was overcrowded, with some classes meeting in Claiborne Parish House across the highway; the Kennerly School was conceded to be an inadequate educational plant, in terms of physical facilities and because it provided only two teachers for eight grades. These problems were greatly intensified when a Federal court ordered a geographical zoning plan for desegregation. Sewanee’s response to this crisis was to offer to furnish adequate space for all pupils under one roof, by constructing four rooms on the Sewanee Public School.

In order to accomplish this, Sewanee citizens devoted time and energy to negotiations, persuasions and solicitations’ contributed substantial sums of cash and/or made generous pledges to the building fund; and in the case of eighteen residents, made loans with no assurance of repayment but their faith in the community. The effort, excitement, and frustration of the initial fund drive, and the fact that the rooms were completed and occupied last November are now part of our community record.”

An article in the March 2, 1964 Chattanooga Times said, “Sewanee is believed to be the only community in the nation to dig into its own pockets to provide facilities making total school desegregation possible.”

For the complete history of the public school, click here.

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