Lawrence County group working to save historic segregated school building
A campaign to restore West Gaines School raises funds to turn the relic of a segregated area into a museum
Grass and weeds grow just outside the doors of West Gaines School in Lawrence County. A group is raising money to restore the relic of Tennessee’s segregated era and turn it into a museum. (Photo: Lonnie Lee Hood)
In parts of 410 West Gaines Street in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, sunlight and rainwater poured through holes in the roof, unchecked for years — until a new blue roof tarp was placed over the July 30 weekend. Moss and grass still grow over portions of the wooden floorboards, and broken tiles hang from the ceiling. While other parts of the building are in better condition, members of the West Gaines School Community Center are organizing and fundraising to save the city’s former segregated school and transform it into a museum and educational space.
The school opened in 1937 after an intense legal battle and closed when US schools were desegregated in 1964. During its 27 years in operation, Black children from Lawrenceburg attended elementary and junior high. There was a ball field, playground, gym and cafeteria — although former students say their books came secondhand from white schools.
James Wallace, a former West Gaines student and president of the organization working to restore the building, says it’s important to preserve this part of Lawrenceburg’s history, but the group is racing against time. The MTSU Center for Historic Preservation has helped the group draft a preservation plan as they apply for funding, but to receive it, ownership of the building must be turned over before the October grant deadline. Wallace, who is 67 and attended school at West Gaines until the fourth grade, said his organization has been working on the project since 2019.
“We’re the third group to try to do this,” Wallace said during a barbecue fundraiser the group held at a local church. “I think they waited the other ones out. We’ve got to be in this for the long haul.”
The school was originally slated to be built in 1931, but in April of that year a coalition of white citizens filed an injunction to prevent construction. In a quote from case documents included in the group’s preservation plan, Derrick and his neighbors said they were “antagonistic to the erection and construction of a negro school” because it was “repugnant to all white inhabitants and property owners.” The case went all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which ruled against Derrick in 1932. By that time, however, the program that would’ve constructed the school had closed. From 1932 to 1937, the Lawrence County Board of Education planned the construction of three new schools, and West Gaines opened in the fall of 1937.
Wallace said the community center group has raised about $20,000 so far, all of which will be used for renovations if they’re able to secure the building’s deed. According to the preservation plan, one of the most costly fixes and immediate fixes will be getting a new roof, but the building also needs new gutters, windows, exterior and interior paint, a series of inspections, landscaping, floor and ceiling repairs and more. The oldest portion of the school will be turned into a museum complete with displays, exhibits and educational material about local history.
“They got behind the Old Jail Museum; let them get behind this,” Wallace said. “Not a place where we’re incarcerated, but where we’re educated. I think it’s a project that’s worth saving. A lot of people in the county feel the same way.”
After West Gaines closed, the Lawrence County Board of Education used the building until the county’s Human Resources department took control of it in 2008. Since abandoned, the county had sectioned the former gym into offices. This is part of the reason that Shirley Dennis, Wallace’s older sister and fellow group organizer, said both kids and adults in Lawrenceburg no longer remember the school’s history.
“[My nephew] had no idea what the school was,” Dennis said. “I don’t know if my kids knew what it was. My grandkids do now, but prior to this they didn’t.”
Dennis, 80, was among the group of Lawrence County students who attended segregated schools throughout their entire education. In high school, Dennis would arrive at the West Gaines location and ride a bus to Mt. Pleasant, more than 20 miles away. Students often got on and off the bus in the dark since the journey took about an hour each way.
In their proposal, the group highlighted important Black educators in Tennessee history, including Principal Joe Thomas. Thomas was born in 1906 in Perry County, received a master’s degree in educational administration from the historic Fisk University in Nashville and in 1938 was named principal of West Gaines. In 1940, he was elected president of the Tennessee Colored State Teachers’ Association. Other prominent educators at the school included mother and daughter duo Vera Davis and Evilina Rhodes.
Mike Pilkinton, co-founder of VisitLawrenceburgTN.com, attended a West Gaines Community Center fundraiser and said it’s refreshing to see more inclusivity in the city.
“We have The Farm community. We have the Amish community,” Pilkinton said. “Why can’t we also teach people about the Black community?”
In an email statement, Lawrence County Executive David Morgan said he expects the building’s deed to be turned over to the West Gaines Community Center ahead of their October deadline.
“We anticipate deeding this historic property over to the West Gaines School Community Group in the very near future,” Morgan said. “As work on this community project continues, more grant opportunities will be available to them. Preserving this important piece of Lawrence County history is something we can all get behind.”
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