Back in 1979, I had attended Shadowlawn Middle School in a rural area along Shadowlawn Road north of Ellendale. I was in the sixth grade then, and remember that I had to get up really early to catch the bus to ride out there, and my parents didn’t like it. I don’t know where I had heard the rumor that our school had once been a high school, but I recall asking one of our teachers about it, and she had stated that Shadowlawn had never been a high school. Back then, I never found any evidence to the contrary, but I do remember that the slogan “Soul Power” was spray-painted on one of the yellow road signs along Shadowlawn Road, and that there was still a grocery store open in those days, but we students were forbidden to go over there.
I learned the truth about Shadowlawn many years later, as a high school student at Bartlett High School in 1985 or 1986. Our school library and the main office had many of the old Panther Parade yearbooks, and when I looked at one from 1971, I noticed that a majority of the Black seniors in the book were said to have “transferred from Shadowlawn.” Furthermore, each student was allowed to list all of their activities, including those at Shadowlawn. I learned that the school had had a student newspaper, a band, a choir, and social clubs called the Gracious Ladies, the Gentlemen’s Club and the Elite Club. They had had football, basketball, baseball and track, a competitive current events quiz team and a drill team. There was also in that yearbook a picture of the straight A students from Shadowlawn, and a reference to “two completely different schools becoming one.” I decided that the history of this Black high school near Bartlett that had never produced a graduating class should be researched and documented, and I set out to do that. Through my friends in Ellendale and Oak Grove, I had no problem in finding and interviewing former students, and since I was required to do a senior term paper in English class, I decided to do the history of Shadowlawn High School as my topic. Unfortunately, the English teacher, Mrs. Reed denied permission for the topic, and I had to write about something else, which proved to be the Memphis Blues Brass Band, but I continued the research on Shadowlawn, interviewing former students and teachers, and desperately looking for memorabilia without really ever finding any. Ultimately I never wrote the paper/article/book, as I could never find any relevant photographs, and I felt that the story without pictures would not be nearly as compelling.
When I heard late last year that a Shadowlawn Alumni Association had been formed, and that a reunion had been held, I was amazed, and a little saddened that I hadn’t heard about it and hadn’t attended it. So when I discovered that a historic marker would be unveiled in front of the school on December 2, which also happened to be my birthday, I was determined to be present. Although my research had nothing to do with what was occurring, I felt it was something of a validation of what I had believed in back in 1985, and just a little comfort (too little in my opinion) for those seniors in 1971 who had been denied the right to graduate from their high school. On this cold Saturday morning, as I heard these men and women sing their alma mater, which choir and band director Lonnie Neely had written to the tune of Henry Mancini’s “Charade”, I felt the thrill of seeing an injustice partially put to rights. Thus inspired, my research into Shadowlawn and the neighborhoods around it continues.
Also thrilling to me was the opportunity to meet the Rev. Arthur Becton, a descendant of Thomas and Mittie Becton, who donated the land on which Shadowlawn School was built. Rev. Becton had known the Bartlett-area blues musician Lum Guffin personally, and was familiar with the fife-and-drum tradition in the area. He explained to me that in addition to the Independent Order of Pall Bearers and Guffin’s United Sons and Daughters of Zion, that there had also been another organization with a fife-and-drum band called the Social Benevolent Society, which used to hold picnics at a place called Early Brown Grove, which he said was near the corner of present-day Kirby-Whitten Parkway and Egypt-Central Road. He also told me that in that day when Blacks in the area were primarily without telephones, that the bass drum was beaten to inform people that someone in the club had died, or that someone was ill and needed visiting. Of the annual Brunswick picnic, he described how the picnic grounds were strung with strands of white Christmas lights so that the party could go on long after dark. I hope to do a formal interview with Rev. Becton in the next few weeks. Altogether it was a wonderful and uplifting morning.
The other day while riding out Old Brownsville Road, where so much has changed due to development, I decided to take a ride through the Shadowlawn community to see what it looks like these days. To my surprise much was still standing, including the old Shadowlawn Grocery, which had still been open back in 1979-1980 when I went to Shadowlawn Middle School, a forbidden temptation to us students, as we were not allowed to go there.
But when I went to school there, I heard rumors as well, rumors that spoke of a Shadowlawn High School, perhaps a predominantly Black school. Teachers I asked said that Shadowlawn had always been a middle school. Still, there was the spray-painted slogan “Soul Power” on a yellow road sign along Shadowlawn Road.
I would learn the truth in my junior year of high school at Bartlett, when looking through the yearbook from 1971, I saw that the majority of Black students pictured were said to have “transferred from Shadowlawn.” More research on my part uncovered a sad and surprising story. There had indeed been a Shadowlawn High School. Their mascot (like ours) had been the Cougar. They had a marching band, a choir, football, basketball, baseball and track, and even social clubs patterned after fraternities. Unexpectedly, these students’ school was closed by the stroke of a judge’s pen, and then the memory of the school was forgotten, perhaps even actively suppressed,
Shadowlawn School had been built as a first through eighth-grade school in 1958, a consolidation of any number of tiny Black elementary schools, most of which were beside Black churches who had campaigned for their establishment. The main building burned in a lightning fire in 1964, but was quickly rebuilt, despite the NAACP’s request that displaced students be placed in predominantly-white schools instead. In 1967, Superintendent George Barnes told the school board that Shadowlawn would need to “add a ninth grade and grow into a high school.” He offered no explanation for why that would be needed, but Barnes was a man who usually got what he wanted.
In the fall of 1967, when Black students attempted to enroll in Bartlett High School under Freedom of Choice, they were told that Bartlett had no room for them, but that there was room at Shadowlawn. Shadowlawn would add the 10th grade in 1968-1969, and the 11th grade in 1969-1970, but in August of 1970, the U. S. District Courts issued orders with regard to integration in the Shelby County Schools, and while most Black high school students were permitted to remain in their existing schools, two Black high schools were ordered closed, Capleville and Shadowlawn. The merger with Bartlett was not easy, as the Shadowlawn students did not wish to attend Bartlett, and many of the Bartlett students did not want the Shadowlawn students there. Merging was especially hard for those who had been cheerleaders at Shadowlawn, and were not allowed to be at Bartlett. Interestingly, the Shadowlawn cheerleaders were pictured in Bartlett’s 1971 annual as a separate group. Despite the establishment of Brotherhood United, a club intended to create dialogue between the races, fights were common, and at least some students from Shadowlawn were suspended for singing Shadowlawn’s alma mater at a Bartlett school assembly. What I could never find were any pictures, yearbooks, letter jackets, trophies, or any other mementos of Shadowlawn High School. Former students and teachers I spoke with either had nothing, or could not find what they thought they had. Further court orders in 1971 would make Shadowlawn High School a middle school, and at least one teacher told me that things from Shadowlawn High School were taken out behind the school by the middle school administration and destroyed systematically. Today the school is the Bartlett 9th Grade Academy.
In my high school years, there was a small barber shop in the same building with the grocery, where some of my friends used to get their haircuts. The Shadowlawn gym was treated like a community center in winter. It was almost always open, and became the scene of pick-up basketball games, although I never was sure whether the gym was supposed to be open or if someone had picked the lock. Learning about the legacy of Shadowlawn High School helped me understand why the surrounding community treated the gymnasium as their community center. They had once had a spirit of ownership and pride in Shadowlawn High School, the school which never produced a graduating class.