Education is the key to social mobility in the United States. This fact was not lost on African Americans who were enslaved and later sharecroppers in the South. In the 1880s one-room schools sprouted up throughout the region. Many of them are now gone forever and just a distant memory. But Flagg Grove School in rural West Tennessee is an exception.
On January 26, 1889, a freedman by the name of Benjamin B Flagg sold an acre of land to establish and maintain the Flagg Grove School for African-American children. That clapboard, tin-roof structure was still standing on the now-vacant farmland the morning I met a former Flagg Grove student Jim Smith.
As Smith and I enter the worn, wooden structure, he points to these wooden cubbies and says, “And all of our coats and things hang back there, and I looked … it looks like they have some hen nests back there, but that’s hats and our coats, that’s for all of our things as we came in.”
The one-room schoolhouse was auctioned off by the county after segregation ended and sold to the Stephens family, who still farm here today.
“We just did the best that we could to keep the things that were here to a certain degree,” said Joe Stephens. “Daddy bought it when it was first put up for auction, in probably late 60s, early 70s, I don’t know the exact date. Then he turned it into storage and corncrib. We put sheds on each side of it.”
Flagg Grove School is about an hour east of Memphis and several miles northwest of Brownsville. The farmland is hilly and vast, and in some ways very different from when it was used to educate African-American children in the decades leading up to desegregation.
When Smith went to school at Flagg Grove, there were trees and sharecropper shacks nearby.
“We went to the first to the eighth grade. I started the school here in I think 1946 and I finished here in ’54.” Smith continues, “It was about 50 kids at one time going to this school.”
Smith says the class was split in two, with the higher grades on one side and the lower grades on the other.
By the time Smith attended Flagg Grove, it was funded with public money, but at a rate less than Smith’s white counterparts. When the school first opened its doors, it was a subscription school, meaning the parents paid a dollar a month and 25 cents for wood to heat the school in the winter. That money was used to pay the teacher.
Schools for African Americans, like Flagg Grove School, were established on the heels of the Civil War.
Change was in the air. In 1880 five African Americans won seats in Haywood County and the Tennessee General Assembly. Dorothy Granbury is a volunteer docent at the Dunbar Carver Museum in the town of Brownsville.
“Since Blacks had some modicum of power at that time,” Granbury explains, “Out there in Flagg Grove, that people had some reason to believe that they could get some support for that school.”
Like Smith, Granbury started her education in a one-room schoolhouse. But the school in Stanton where she got her elementary lessons is long gone.
Although blacks and whites were educated separately, that didn’t mean they didn’t play together. Smith says, growing up, he had friends who were black and white. They were all children of sharecroppers.
Smith says, “We all played together. But we didn’t go to school together. We all ate together, because it was a lot of share…It was a lot of kids out here. And after school we all got together, we all played. There would be 50 60 kids walking out here, just walking and having a good time!”
Like many African Americans in the South, Smith headed north after high school to find work – that wasn’t sharecropping. But he hasn’t forgotten where he came from, and he brought his granddaughter back to Flagg Grove to see the school. She was born in Chicago.
“Actually, we couldn’t get to this house at the time,” says Smith because it was overgrown with weeds, and there were cows and horses, too. So I walked up here and she says, ‘Oh granddaddy, you go to school there?’ I said, “Yes, that’s where I went.”
The little schoolhouse was recently picked up and moved to the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, where it will be restored and preserved for future generations.