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The History of Booker T. Washington High School: From Clay to Booker – It’s All in a Name

Editor’s Note to Travelers: Below is an article from The Mid-South Tribune’s Booker T. Washington 100th Year Anniversary Special Edition, published October 2, 1998.


By Sylvester Bradley

The Mid-South Tribune

and the Black Information Highway


The name of Booker T. Washington is as historic as time itself. We can associate that name with black history because of his contributions to our society. That name is synonymous with the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy in American history. Rather than doing name associations, I want to take you on a trip down historic treks in the existence of a school here in Memphis that bear that same name: Booker T. Washington High School.   

            We’ll go back to the school’s inception—from its first five graduates in 1891-- five women who blazed a trail for their peers that supersedes the boundaries of acquiring an education and translates into generations of over-achievers who fared well in their endeavors and were mindful of where they came from, giving back something to a community that has embellished the very spirit of pride and dedication for an entity that bears the name, Booker T. Washington. We’ll go back to the first building that had only two rooms and only two teachers during the first 10 years of its existence to a period that saw enrollment of 10 pupils to 100 over the next 10 years to a time when the Board of Education decided to move the school from its original site on Webster Street to its present site at Lauderdale and Mississippi.

             After slavery’s abolishment there were great strides made towards the education of black people. Educational leaders began to open doors that had been shut to blacks. Deep in the moral fabric of this America, people realized that a nation had to be developed. It was now someone else’s turn to reap some of the benefits that others had lavished on them for centuries! Thus, a physical battle ending and a new, mental sophisticated battle was on the forefront. Black people now were given the chance to work their brains and interpersonal skills rather than their brawn. The people in the Clay and Webster Street area took hold of a golden opportunity to capitalize on the generosity of the times and become leaders in their community which since then has impacted the world with aspiring individuals whose names are commonly spoken throughout the land even in today’s society. Sure, there were daily struggles with the ongoing racial issues, but that and others could not quench the spirit that resided in the hearts of the Clay School community. Spirited leaders in the City of Memphis were borne out of the optimism and empathy of some extraordinary white people who dared to unselfishly give back something to a people because they realized their responsibility to them.


 The first principal of the then Clay Street School was a white man who, like other post-bellum  educators, contributed a great deal to educational development of black people. Further down our historical trek we find that this institution, because of its influence upon the country drew affable, eclectic Negro men who flourished from the caliber of training that was provided by the school and went on to make their marks on society. One of them was Professor Benjamin Kellogg Sampson, a graduate of Oberlin College, known for the development of eminent men and women of color in the early days of the race’s development. After teaching in some of the major universities in the land, he urged his fellow colleagues to help out its “benighted” sons and daughters. Around 1875, Professor Sampson moved from Mississippi to Memphis where he then became principal of the Clay Street School in Memphis. Having a man of this stature as a leader could only set a standard by which those who followed would have to uphold. Professor Sampson was principal for 17 years and did much to make the educational foundation in Memphis enduring for the youth and monumental for himself. His career with the school system ended in 1892. Many influential educators followed in Dr. Sampson’s footsteps as Clay Street School continued to be a cornerstone in the flourishment of the black person. After 36 years of growth and seeing the graduating class grow to 1,164 graduates, a new school building was built in 1925 at a cost of $350,000. It had modern amenities and could compete with the finest schools in the land. I can just feel the excitement and pride that these, my ancestors, must have felt to experience what hard work and determination could do for them. Not only was the school nice but specializing training was provided such as industrial arts, business principles, and other college preparatory courses which enabled students to assert themselves in the progressing world that lay ahead. In and around 1911, the school board decided to move the school from its Webster Street address to the current site at Lauderdale and Mississippi Boulevard due to student growth and its vision for increased educational opportunities. Booker T. Washington High School took on the challenge of a bold new frontier, an America that was embarking upon technology at an alarming rate. Through the decades to follow, Booker T. Washington High School has produced many affluent scholars and influential people throughout society, those whose contributions have embraced this city as well as the nation. There are famous graduates such as Dr. Benjamin Hooks (former head of the national NAACP), dance crazed king and bluesman Rufus Thomas, Maurice White of the R&B group, “Earth, Wind, and Fire”, both have touched our souls with moving rhythmical songs for decades; Claudia Barr whose voice has been heard nationally, Janice Jones Fullilove who gets us to look at issues and express ourselves over the airwaves of the Mid-South; political and public officials such as Dr. W.W. Herenton, Memphis’ first elected black mayor who was also an imposing Golden Glove boxing champion; Dr. Browning McGhee, an educator with the school system as well as Golden Gloves Boxer; Mrs. Elsie Lewis Bailey, current principal of Booker T. Washington, and Mrs. Annye Hughes, assistant principal at BTW; and Mr. Rick Mason, director of Teacher Placement for the school system; Mr. James Powell with the Memphis Park Commission; the late Charles Lomax, assistant Athletic Director of BTW, and Mrs. James Watkins with American Airlines management are just a few of the people who have graced the hallways of Booker T. Washington High School, have obtained a stellar education and have made or are making their marks on our society. Not only has Booker T. Washington produced eminent people in political and public arenas, but has made an indelible mark in the professional sports world as well. The most recent player from Booker T. Washington to don a pro uniform is Lorenzo Wright who plays for the Los Angeles Clippers; Oscar Reed, Minnesota Vikings; Harvey Branch, Chicago Cubs; Joe Willie DeMeyers, 1953 International Flyweight and World Flyweight Champion; Fred Valentine; Paul Jenious—are a few more names of former Warriors who have placed their marks in the annals of Booker T. Washington sports and the world.

            Yes, this school has been a force in social, political and economic battles throughout the past 117 years, yet has endured and excelled. However, the struggle is not over as I discovered with Coach Norman Todd at BTW when I inquired about the progression for this school from the past to now on an academic level, he said: “I have seen attendance drop, because people move out of the community. Education has a new emphasis which is geared to meet student’s needs, more hands-on. Authentic learning, BTW has many ‘pilot programs’ and is gearing towards a more computerized society.” In essence, just as the football coach would do when his team begins to struggle, they go back to the basics, just as they did in the early days with “hands-on” teaching techniques. Then, they had ‘pilot programs’ as now. Those ancestors were gearing up to face a technological monster just as the current students are now. So, the legacy left behind by those in Clay Street School—later Booker T. Washington—alumni still lives on and when that name is spoken anywhere, history eludes from it! Booker T. Washington, a name, a community, a high school.