The Last Hurrah For Foote Homes and Booker T. Washington High

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When the United States Department of Education complained about the location of Memphis’ all-Black Kortrecht High School in the middle of a noisy, smokey rail yard in South Memphis, the city finally decided to build the new comprehensive Black high school that the Black community had been asking for. The community considered it a victory, until they learned it was to be called the Memphis Negro Industrial High School. Outrage over the name led to one of the first sustained Black protests in Memphis, and though the community did not get their wish of a school named for its principal, Green Polonius Hamilton, they did get the name changed to Booker T. Washington, and the new school opened in 1927. Memphis folklore has it that the school board gave it green and gold colors and the mascot “Warriors” so that worn and used jerseys and jackets from the white Memphis High School (now Central) could be used at BTW. Over the years, Booker T. Washington furthered the hopes and dreams of generations of Black Memphians. It has produced great musicians like the Bar-Kays, and great athletes. A few years ago, it was visited by President Barack Obama himself. Unfortunately, schools’ fates are largely determined by the neighborhood around them, and BTW’s future seems threatened, to say the least. Enrollment took a plunge when open enrollment and transfer allowed people in the district to attend high school elsewhere, and then the city began its program of demolition of the projects including Cleaborn Homes, where many BTW students resided. Now Memphis has received a 30 million dollar grant to demolish and replace Foote Homes, the last public housing project in Memphis, where a lot of current BTW students live. With it being replaced by upscale housing for the wealthy, it is unclear whether BTW will retain enough enrollment to avoid state takeover or closure. But for now, fans and alumni still take pride in their team and band, turning out on Friday nights for the weekly games at historic Washington Stadium.

Booker T. Washington High School Warrior Band in the Southern Heritage Classic Parade 2012

Memphis’ Booker T. Washington High School began its life in the late nineteenth century as Kortrecht High School in the former Peabody School building in South Memphis between two rail yards (the current Peabody School in Cooper-Young was built to replace the one which became Kortrecht). The principal of Kortrecht was Green Polonius Hamilton, for whom Hamilton High School is named. Hamilton was one of a number of African-Americans in Memphis calling for a new and better school building, as Kortrecht’s location in the rail yards led to considerable noise and smoke. Memphis eventually agreed to build a new school, but the city’s intent to name it the Memphis Negro Industrial High School led to city-wide complaints. Black citizens asked that the school be named for G.P. Hamilton, but the city cited a policy that forbid schools from being named for living people. Ultimately the school was named for Booker T. Washington, a Black educator who met with the approval of Southern whites for advocating industrial and agricultural education, and for counseling African-Americans in the South to refrain from attempting to vote or to agitate for equal rights. The new Booker T. Washington High School opened in 1927, and notably chose the same school colors (green and gold) and mascot (Warriors) as the white Central High School. Like Manassas, BTW produced a number of great musicians over the years (most of the original Bar-Kays were alumni). Here the BTW band and drumline march down Park Avenue in Orange Mound during the Southern Heritage Classic Parade, 9/8/12