Group raising funds to convert historic Black school into museum

Posted at 8:01 PM, Apr 21, 2022

For many Black residents in Tennessee, one building is not only history, it's a major part of their own lives. And it's certainly seen better days. A group is now on a mission to save the building and tell its story.

"There were blackberry bushes and honeysuckle vines back there," said Shirley Dennis, gesturing behind a building. "Sometimes we would have music and we would dance on the sidewalk. B.B. King, I guess. Muddy Waters, Little Richard."

Every time Shirley sees this building, the memories come flooding back to when she'd go running up its steps, to her school. Two teachers. Four classrooms.

"I think I went to school here from, like, '52 through '57, I think," she remembered. "We got to be student council members. Class presidents. We were captains of the football teams. Oh yes! All of my memories were happy!"

The school itself was built on West Gaines Street in Lawrenceburg in the late 1930s.

"This was the only school that the Blacks had to attend in this community," Shirley said.

Even at that, this school from the era of segregation only went up through 8th grade. After that, kids like Shirley would be bused 24 miles away to a school in Mount Pleasant.

"They didn't have a Black high school in this community," she said.

Shirley said all of that is a major part of Lawrenceburg's Black history. The building has been other things through the years, but now it's long been abandoned. Shirley wants to save the place.

"If you look, you'll see that the roof has big holes in it," she said. "We know it's full of asbestos. The walls have lead paint. We'll need about $500,000 at least. I know that's a lot of money, but that's exactly what we need."

Shirley's part of a group called the West Gaines School Community Center. They're raising money and holding fundraisers to try and convert the place into a community center and a museum.

"The Black community has no representation in this community," Shirley said. "We want our children and grandchildren to know we were here. If the right people would work with us, it could be done."

A GoFundMe page can be found here.

This story was originally published by Forrest Sanders of WTVFin Nashville, Tennessee.