• Home
  • >
  • >
  • African Americans’ quest for education in Chester County

African Americans’ quest for education in Chester County

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

By Dr. Elizabeth Ann Saunders

Montezuma School Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library & Archives

Soon after Chester County was settled and African Americans began moving in, the people realized that education was necessary for them and was needed to help our society progress.
Education had not only given the African American citizens of Chester County the opportunity to improve their way of life, but it would also help them make worthwhile contributions to our county, state and country.
There were public schools for African American children in Chester County in the nineteenth century. These schools were held in church buildings and many children had to walk long distances over muddy roads, paths, across foot logs over streams and canals. The buildings were not warm in the winter and since the children had to help on the farms in the spring and fall, schools were held mostly during the summer months. There were schools in Chester County held in churches as early as 1838.
The first African American school building in the county was built as early as 1908 in the northern part of Chester County on land given by Mr. Tom Cawthon. This school was named Cawthon School and even though the school was rebuilt, the name never changed.
The next African American school building to be erected after the Cawthon School was Oak Grove. This school was built on land given by private citizens and since it was built in a wooded area, Oak Grove seemed an appropriate name and thus it became Oak Grove School.
The first school in the Masseyville community was built on the Bill Nettles farm and was called the Needmore School. This building burned and classes were held in the Hatchie Church for a period. In the early 1930s a school was built on the Chester and McNairy County line to serve the African American children from both counties in the community. The name was then changed to Masseyville. Masseyville School was a one room school.
When you finished eighth grade, you had to drop out of school or board away from home as there was no transportation for African American children. The first bus was a car driven by Troy Moten in 1938.
Montezuma’s first school was built on property belonging to the local CME Church. This building was destroyed by fire.
After the building was destroyed by fire, land was purchased from Mrs. Carl McNatt on the opposite side of the road where the new building was erected in the early 1930s. Montezuma School was a one room school.
The African American citizens of Chester County were happy to have some school buildings in the county but there were still many African American children attending schools in church buildings. African Americans needed and wanted more schools and better schools for their children. African Americans also wanted schools closer to their homes so the children would not have to leave home at daybreak and return at dark.
In 1938 Mr. & Mrs. Herman Gibson donated land for a school southeast of Henderson and with the aid of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a two-room school with a lunchroom was built. The name of school was Gibson Rosenwald School and it served the Trice’s Chapel Community.
According to documents provided to the Fisk University Library Special Collections, at least two Rosenwald schools were constructed in Chester County. One of these schools was Gibson Rosenwald. These documents further reveal the following concerning the Gibson Rosenwald School.  The school was built on 2.5 acres of land with two teachers. It was built under the 1927-1928 budget with a total cost of $3,400. The application number was 35-G and located on Talley Town Road.
H.A. Bullock (1970) described the overall impact of the Julius Rosenwald Fund School Building Program as follows; “The work of the Rosenwald Fund permeated the educational experience of the Negro more deeply than that of any other fund.”
Perhaps the educational experiences referred to in Bullock’s quote can best be described by students who attended Gibson-Rosenwald. Paul Barnes, now living in Georgia, attended Gibson-Rosenwald from first through eighth grade. Based on an interview Jerry Woods conducted with Barnes, Barnes shared these comments about his experiences at Gibson-Rosenwald. “I started school at age five and completed all grades before going to the ninth grade at Chester County Training School.”  He further said this of the school’s interior description. “Gibson Rosenwald had two rooms for grades one through eight. Grades one through four were in one room and grades five through eight were in the other. One teacher was assigned to each room with the teacher assigned to grades five through eight, also serving as principal.
Tennessee School Register, provided by the Chester County Board of Education indicate that a Record of a Year’s Work, in the 1950-1951 school year included the following projects: The Cancer Drive; National Red Cross; and selling tuberculosis seals. There was also a great contribution to the hot lunch program when the Ladies’ Club purchased an electric stove and refrigerator. This information was submitted by teacher-principal, Alice Cawthon to Paul Barnes who spent eight years at Gibson-Rosenwald.
Barnes speaks of Cawthon and the other teachers in this manner. “The teachers were truly outstanding and made every effort to make sure we received a quality education. Mrs. Cawthon gave me a chance to do many special assignments in math and science with studying some of the great poets from the past.” Barnes proudly concludes, “She (Cawthon) prepared me so well that I graduated first in my class in high school and undergraduate classes and earned a master’s degree from the University of Southern California. Perhaps a testament to the influence of Cawthon and Gibson Rosenwald, Barnes reached signal achievements by any standards. He retired as Regional Commission for the Southeast Region of the Social Security Administration after 43 years of service.
The Gibson-Rosenwald School, like many other African American schools closed with the beginning of school integration. The closure left memories for scores of students who had the educational experience of attending the two-room Gibson Rosenwald school, located on Talley Store Road in southeastern Chester County.
 The total cost of the building was supported by these contributions: African Americans, $600; Whites, $300; Public $2,000; and Rosenwald fund, $500.
Receiving fund support came with certain requirements. Among the requirements were African American citizens would provide the land for the building as well as financial support. In the case of the Gibson-Rosenwald School, Volume 1 of Chester County History and Families indicates that Mr. and Mrs. Hermon Gibson donated the land required for the school, thus the school became Gibson-Rosenwald School.
While the Gibson Rosenwald School was being built, the African American citizens of the Jacks Creek Community were working to raise money to buy land for a school. After the purchase of the land, the land was deeded to the Chester County Board of Education. In 1939, with the help of Mrs. Carrie M. Denny, Supervisor of Black Schools, Mr. R.E. Clay, and Lawyer Hardin, they received a two-room school and lunchroom. The school was named Jacks Creek School.

List of African American Elementary Schools in Chester County Receiving Classification (1941-42)

Chester County Training School
Gibson Rosenwald
Jacks Creek
Oak Grove


J. A. Vincent

Harry B. Nolan

Katrina Ruth Ross

Naomi Pulliam

Elrena Trice

The first African American High school, Chester County Training School, was opened in 1932 after much hard work by local PTAs and other citizen groups, with Mr. J. A. Vincent serving as principal. This school was located on Hwy 45 what is now North Church Avenue at a place near the College Inn on North Church Ave.
The first transportation to the high school was a car driven by Mr. O.B. Cason. Since he was unable to cover the whole county, he went only to the sections where most children lived. Others had to board in town if they wanted to attend high school.
In 1936, the first graduating class of the Chester County Training School received diplomas. There were only seven members in the graduating class, but that was a step forward and great day for African Americans in Chester County. Prior to this, students wanting a high school diploma had to board or travel to Madison County to attend Merry High School in Jackson, Tennessee.
The second graduating class of Chester County Training School in 1937 consisted of seventeen students. One of the members of this class was J.M. Trice. In 1948, J. M. Trice was elected principal of Chester County Training School. The following year the school located on Highway 45 burned.
A new school building was built on the east side of town. According to the following article in the March 17, 1950, edition of the Chester County Independent, Superintendent Tom Armour tells of the opening of Negro school.
On April 7, 1950, dedicatory exercises were held for Chester County Training School.
At the time the new high school was built, there were six rural African American schools in the county and one in Henderson. It was decided that one large school could supply the needs of all the African American children better than several small ones. But reaching that goal was not easy. After a long hard struggle, all the African American schools in Chester County were consolidated, including grades one through twelve.
In February 1963 an epoch was reached at Chester County Training School. The name was changed to Vincent High School in honor of its founder, J.A. Vincent.
Year after year, African American students, teachers, and PTAs worked together as one big homogenous group seeking the best for all. One of the fund-raising events of the year for the school was the annual 8th of August gathering or “Picnic.” held on the campus of Chester County Training School/Vincent High School. It drew crowds from the community and surrounding communities. Another highlight of the school was the creation of a softball field. Lighting was eventually added to the field. The contract was awarded to D.J. Robinson’s Electrical Company, an alumnus of Chester County Training School. The campus was a playground for the children of the community with various playground equipment. The school building served an educational, social, and recreational, and cultural facility for the African American community. African American families in Chester County were proud of their school and felt a true sense of community with the school their children attended.
Year after year graduates of the school grew greater in number and caliber. Graduates of Chester County-Vincent High School had permeated the United States and other countries and have made notable contributions to society.
In wake of integration, the great school came to a silence with the closing Vincent High in 1969. It ceased to be a strong hold for African Americans in Chester County in 1970 when the elementary school closed.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, alumni from Chester County Training-Vincent High School began holding an All Class-School Reunion every two years. The All Class-School Reunion takes place on Labor Day Weekend every two years. They have met at various locations throughout Chester County, since their school was effectively dissolved by integration. Integration brought students of all races and skin color together and it allowed everyone to have access to the same opportunities and levels of education. However, those who had graduated from Chester County Training-Vincent High felt lost without a school. They have watched over the years as their alma mater was transformed to a middle school, a school for six graders, a Headstart Center and ultimately to offices, storage space and an alternative school.
The most recent All Class-School Reunion was held Labor Day Weekend of September 2022. Over 100 people from all grades and graduation years, along with their friends and family, attended the reunion.
Chester County-Vincent High School will be remembered if there is person alive who walked the halls in any capacity; whether it be principal, teacher, student, cook or janitor. This is because of the sharing and caring attitude of the people who were a part of the school.

Cawthon School
Oak Grove School, 1942 Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library & Archives
Montezuma C.M.E. Church, 1951
Teacher- Principal, Alice Cawthon
Paul Barnes
Gibson Rosenwald School, 1939 Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library & Archives
Chester County Training School, 1939 with Roger M. Ruth holding the flag on the left and an unknown gentleman holding the flag on the right – Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library & Archives
J. M. Trice, Principal of Chester County Training-Vincent High School
All Class-School Reunion Committee, 2022

Related Posts

The Chester County Independent is a weekly newspaper, published on Thursdays, serving Chester County, Tennessee.

© Copyright 2023 

chestercountyindependent.com, 218 S Church Ave Henderson, TN