Nashville now has a public school named after Robert Churchwell, the legendary Nashville Banner reporter who broke racial barriers in the segregated South to become the first African-American journalist to work at a major southern newspaper.
The school board unanimously voted Tuesday night to turn Wharton Elementary School into the Robert Churchwell Museum Magnet Elementary School. Churchwell, a lifelong Nashvillian who was revered by many, died in 2009.
“It’s such a kind gesture,” said Mary Churchwell, Robert’s wife of 58 years. “He would love to know about this. He would be flattered because he loved to cover the school board, and covered it for over 20 years. I think this is just a wonderful thing to happen, to be honored in this way.”
The building itself, constructed in 1959 and situated on 18th Avenue in north Nashville, is getting the finishing touches of an $8 million renovation project. Students last year attended classes at the Brookemeade Elementary building in Bellevue. In August, they will move into the newly renovated north Nashville building, which will feature a new museum-magnet academic concept and a new school name.
The previous name, Wharton, referenced 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 principal and professor at various institutions, as well as serving on the school board.
Robert Churchwell, who would become known as the “Jackie Robinson of Journalism,” began his tenure at the Nashville Banner in 1950. Hired by Nashville’s daily newspaper that vehemently opposed racial progress, Churchell was hired largely as a publicity stunt to attract readers.
During his first five years, Churchwell wasn’t even permitted to work in the paper’s newsroom. He worked from his house, making use of a typewriter he borrowed from a former teacher who lived in the neighborhood. Eventually, he became the Nashville Banner’s education reporter.
Churchwell began his reporting career the same year as John Seigenthaler, the famed Tennessean reporter who today serves as the newspaper’s chairman emeritus. The two would become great friends.
“What so many people in this city today miss when they hear his name is a full knowledge of a life that was totally committed to journalism and journalism as a form of education,” Seigenthaler said.
During his early years, Churchwell was relegated to basic reporting assignments — covering the black community’s churches, Boy Scout groups, etc. Stories he wrote and submitted that recounted the struggles of a racially divided Nashville were never printed.
“Bob Churchwell was a journalist who could compete with me on any story in this community or in this nation and indeed beat me,” Seigenthaler said. “He was so talented. Bob Churchwell was corralled and oppressed. His talent never was given the full opportunity to bloom because newspapers simply would not let him.”
Today, Churchwell’s five children have produced distinguished careers of their own in Nashville, including Andre Churchwell, who works as an associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University.
“I can only say that the school would be something he would be smiling about now,” Andre Churchwell said. “Education was such an important central theme in his life that the Churchwell family will stay committed in a resolute way to ensure the success of that school.”