A Metro elementary school named for a Confederate naval hero will likely be re-named in honor of the south’s first African-American journalist.
The old Wharton school building at 18th Avenue North in north Nashville has been undergoing a $15 million renovation project. Built in 1959, the building has housed a middle school, Nashville’s Big Picture High School and served as the temporary home of West End Middle School, among other uses.
Next year, the building will open its doors to Wharton Elementary School, which is in the process of being transformed into a new museum-based magnet school. During last year’s construction, Wharton students attended class at the former Brookemeade Elementary School building in Bellevue.
School board chair David Fox hopes when students return to their revamped school in August, the sign above the front door will read “Robert Churchwell Museum Magnet Elementary School.” It may include the phrase “at the Wharton campus.”
Churchwell, a Fisk University graduate, in 1950 became the first African-American reporter at a major southern newspaper, the Nashville Banner. For the path he pioneered, contemporaries knew Churchwell as the “Jackie Robinson of Journalism.” Churchwell died in February 2009.
A committee has been reviewing the name-change, and the board is expected to vote on the matter at Tuesday night’s meeting.
“I’ve thought all along, since the school is coming back as an elementary school with a whole new plan that it would make sense to re-name it,” Fox said.
“He was the first African-American journalist in the south to work at a major southern newspaper,” Fox said of Churchwell. “He was there at a time of really undisguised racism and segregation. During his first five years, he was not even permitted to work in the newsroom. He had to work elsewhere and send his copy in.”
Toward the end of his tenure at the Nashville Banner, Churchwell was the paper’s education reporter, which Fox said makes the name-change even more appropriate. Today, many of Churchwell’s family members have distinguished careers in Nashville.
“It just seemed to me that putting a name associated with such courage and excellence was just the right name for a school like this that we expect to be so successful and so important,” Fox said.
The majority of students zoned for Wharton are African-American.
The name Wharton, meanwhile, refers to Arthur Dickson Wharton, a member of the Confederate navy who served during the Civil War with distinction. Later, the Nashville native made contributions to education as a principal of City High School and Montgomery Bell Academy, a professor at University of Nashville and a member of the school board.
Fox said his decision to advocate for the name-change had less to do with getting rid of a vestige of the old confederacy and more to do with giving the school a fresh start.
“This school is going to be rebuilt,” Fox said. “Everything about it is going to be new and different. I thought it was important to find a name associated with excellence.”