by Kathy B. Lauder.
Nashville’s first public high school for African American students was the Meigs School, which opened as a grammar school in 1883 and accepted secondary students for the first time the fall of 1886. Eleven years later, in 1897, responding to rising student enrollment, the Board of Education moved all the city’s black high school students to the former Pearl Grammar School building, built in 1883 at 217 5th Ave. S (across from today’s Country Music Hall of Fame), creating Pearl High School, which remained at that location until its move to 16th Ave. N. in 1917.
The 5th Avenue building remained vacant until the fall of 1924, when it reopened as Pearl Junior High, serving grades 1-9. Four years later, on November 26, 1928, the School Board voted to change the school’s name to Cameron Junior High School, in honor of Professor H. A. Cameron.
Henry Alvin Cameron was one of eleven African American soldiers from Davidson County to die in World War I. Before enlisting at age 45, Cameron had worked as a science teacher and coach at Pearl High School, taking a leave of absence from teaching in 1917 to volunteer for service in the war. One of only twelve black soldiers from Tennessee accepted into the officer training program at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, Cameron was among the 1.2 million American soldiers who participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the autumn of 1918. He died twelve days before the end of the war at Châtel-Chéhéry, not far from where Sgt. Alvin York had earned the Medal of Honor for courage under fire three weeks earlier.
Cameron was the fourth public school in Nashville to be named for an African American. The others were Carter School (1897), named for Nashville teacher Howard Carter (and becoming the Carter-Lawrence School after a 1940 merger); Napier School (1898), named for Henry Alonzo Napier, a Nashville school principal who had studied at West Point; and Nelson Merry School (date unknown), honoring Nashville’s first African-American ordained minister.
The original Cameron school building was a two-story brick structure. It lacked indoor plumbing, heated its classrooms by means of a scattering of stoves and grates throughout the building, and was seriously overcrowded — designed for 800 students, it typically housed 1,000 and had a lengthy waiting list. Elementary classrooms were located on the first floor; grades 7-9 met on the second.
In 1940 Cameron School moved to First Ave. S., occupying a building designed by Henry Clossen Hibbs, a celebrated architect who also designed Nashville’s NES building, along with structures at Fisk, Vanderbilt, Peabody, Scarritt, Belmont, and Meharry. This four-story facility, set on a 7-acre campus, featured 23 classrooms, two office suites, a large library, three home economics rooms, two science laboratories, a clinic, a cafeteria, and a teachers’ lounge.
Under the leadership of Principal John C. Hull, Cameron became a senior high school in the fall of 1955, when its elementary grades (1-6) moved into the newly constructed Johnson Elementary School (named for a former principal) on 2nd Avenue South. Hull oversaw the construction of a boys’ gym, an auditorium, band and chorus rooms, and a stadium. Cameron High School’s first senior class graduated in June 1957.
In 1958 Oscar Jackson, a TSU alumnus with a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina, became principal of Cameron High School. Jackson was still principal at Cameron in 1968, the year the school’s athletic program was suspended, setting off a legal battle that would continue for more than three years and would ultimately cost Oscar Jackson his health. Jackson and his staff fought the suspension in both the courtroom and the media as the battle merged with efforts to end segregation in the Nashville schools. By late summer 1970 the beloved principal, exhausted and in poor health, retired after twelve years at the helm of the school. James M. Robinson replaced Jackson, but only for a year. The battle for full school integration was nearly over.
Despite the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declaring public school segregation unconstitutional, and the Court’s subsequent decree (1955) that integration proceed “with all deliberate speed,” Cameron High School’s student body was still entirely black in 1968 when the Metro school board and the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association suspended the school’s athletic program for a full year after a basketball tournament fracas. Cameron parents and their supporters, represented by attorney Avon N. Williams Jr., claimed that the suspension was racially motivated and also insisted that city schools should be made to conform to constitutional integration requirements. In 1971, after a federal judge ordered busing to resolve racial segregation, many white parents withdrew their children from the public schools, and private schools sprang up all over town1. Nevertheless, desegregation was finally winding down. In June 1971 the last all-black senior class graduated from Cameron High. Beginning that fall, Cameron students were bused to McGavock Comprehensive High School2 in Donelson. McGavock, which opened in 1971, initially served students in grades ten through twelve who had previously attended Cameron, Donelson and Two Rivers high schools; the school added ninth grade in 1978. Cameron became an integrated junior high school, and in 1978 pioneered Nashville’s first middle school program.
The Cameron School has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2006, and has also been designated by the Metro Nashville Historical Commission as part of a Historic Landmark District. (2021)
Adapted from the Greenwood Project.
1 Nashville schools that opened in the early 1970s:
- McGavock Comprehensive High School (public), Donelson, initially served students in grades 10-12 who had previously attended Cameron, Donelson and Two Rivers high schools; the school opened its doors in 1971;
- Brentwood Academy (private), Granny White Pike, Brentwood, was chartered 20 Nov 1969 and opened September 1970;
- Donelson Christian Academy (private), Donelson, founded in 1971;
- Ezell-Harding Christian School (private), Bell Road, Antioch – parents began meeting about establishing the school in 1971-72; school’s first year of operation was 1973-74;
- Franklin Road Academy (private), 4700 Franklin Pike, founded in 1971;
- Goodpasture Christian School (private), Madison, opened to grades 7-11 in Sep 1971, adding grade 12 by fall 1972; the former East Nashville Christian School, it had opened to grades 1-6 in 1966;
- Nashville Christian School (private), 7555 Sawyer Brown Rd., opened 20 Sep 1971;
- St. Paul Christian Academy (private), 5033 Hillsboro Pike, opened Sep 1971 for students in grades K-6. The school added grades, 7, 8, and 9 by 1975 but phased them out by 1981 to focus on elementary education.
McGavock High School facts:
- Largest high school in Tennessee in physical size – just under 500,000 square feet; its main building covers 14 acres;
- First high school in Nashville to combine an academic program with extensive vocational training;
- Its impressive marching band has won the state championship 25 times and has performed at the Tournament of Roses Parade, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Orange Bowl Parade, and other nationally televised events; the National Band Association has recognized it as one of the Ten Finest Bands in the U.S.
The story of the battle for integration at Cameron High School is told in The Past Is Prologue: Cameron Class of 1969, a documentary film by Mark Schlicher, and in this Nashville Scene article.