Understanding history is easier with tangible points of reference. Many historic African American schools, cemeteries and church buildings—like the below Black history sites in Maury County, for example—remain physical reminders of a not-so-distant past filled with tragedy and triumph.
Photo: Visit Columbia
The Black community’s perseverance despite systemic discrimination can be complicated to sort out without a road map. After enslaved people of color were emancipated in the 1800s, they wasted no time setting up businesses and building communities throughout Tennessee. Schools, churches and other establishments that specifically catered to the Black community were the foundations in which the people were able to thrive.
Segregation forced many African Americans to spend much of their lives worshiping, learning and congregating together on their side of town, resulting in an entire community having to be resourceful and depend on each other. Funeral homes, hospitals, schools and churches were needed by the Black community and these institutions were more than just buildings and places to go; they represented freedom.
Throughout Maury County, there are several historically Black communities with deep ancestral roots dating back more than 150 years. Here are a few that will give you insight into the Black history in Columbia and its surrounding towns.
Mt. Lebanon Missionary Baptist Church
Maury County has more than 40 historic Black churches; several were established before emancipation due to enslaved people being allowed to worship by their owners. Once people of color became free, they continued practicing their faith. The only thing that changed is that they began to build upon these places of worship.
Many of the historic churches, like Mt. Lebanon Missionary Baptist in Columbia, are still operating today. Established in 1843, a small group decided to form their own church because they were not allowed to participate in the services at First Baptist Church in Columbia. The predominately white church only allowed people of color to sit in the balcony. This church is the oldest National Baptist Church in the state of Tennessee and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The existing building was built in 1885, just a few blocks away from the original location. Mt. Lebanon Missionary Baptist also served as a school during Reconstruction.
Fountain Creek United Primitive Baptist Church
Another church established before emancipation, Fountain Creek United Primitive Baptist in Culleoka included free Blacks, whites and the enslaved. The church only became segregated when the Civil War came to the Southern states. At that time, Black congregants organized and became the Fountain Creek United Primitive Baptist Church.
The first pastor of the church was a U.S. Colored Troop veteran named Elder Benjamin Abernathy. As with many other churches, the church doubled as a school until 1920 when the Rosenwald school construction was completed. The original Fountain Creek United Primitive Baptist burned in 1943, and the current building dates to 1944.
College Hill School and Carver-Smith High School
After church, education was next in importance to people of color. Enslaved people were deprived of any sort of formal education as it was illegal to teach them to read and write in many, if not all of, the slave states. Being able to go to school and learn in a formal setting was important. Education was viewed as the one thing that could help the community be successful.
College Hill School in Columbia was established in 1881, and generations of African Americans were educated there before the last high school class graduated in 1949. Carver-Smith High School opened in 1950, and College Hill became an elementary school. After 18 years, the Maury County School Board announced plans to integrate the students from Carver-Smith in 1968. The students who attended Carver-Smith were subsequently moved to Columbia Central High School in 1969. The site where College Hill was located is now home to the Horace O. Porter School at College Hill.
Clarke Training School
Originally the Mount Pleasant Colored School, the Clarke Training School was a Rosenwald school; in the early 1920’s, its doors to both elementary and high school students. The training schools of this period taught Black students how to work in homes or fields. Once the school expanded, it started teaching a more traditional curriculum along with building additions of a cafeteria and gymnasium.
In the 1940’s, Clarke Training School added athletic programs to include football, track and basketball. The school changed its name to Clarke Elementary and High School in 1962. Clarke graduated its last class before integration, in 1969, before the original school burned down two years later. Today, there is a state historic marker at Bluegrass Avenue in Mount Pleasant that identifies where the community constructed the school.
Maury County Colored Hospital
From 1923 to 1954, the Maury County Colored Hospital served the African American citizens of Maury and its surrounding counties as healthcare for people of color but was extremely limited prior to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. World War II and the lack of money from its clientele caused financial and human resources strain on the hospital, but it remained open until Maury Regional Hospital opened in 1954. There is a historic marker on East 7th Street at the place where the hospital operated.
Photo: Visit Columbia
A.J. Morton & Son Funeral Home
Funeral homes were some of the earliest Black-owned businesses after slavery ended; in 1891, a former slave J.M. Morton opened one. When he died in 1899, his son and widow continued operating the business. For nearly 100 years, Morton’s descendants owned and operated the funeral home.
Located in the middle of the Black community, it also played a pivotal role during the Columbia Riot of 1946: It was a gathering place for Black residents during the aftermath of an altercation between a white shopkeeper and a Black veteran, James Stephenson, over a radio repair. Police arrested more than 100 Black men while charging 25 with attempted murder. The legal defense team for the Black men included Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first Black justice to sit on the Supreme Court. An all-white jury acquitted 23 of 25 men of the charges.
A few years after slavery ended, the U.S. Congress chartered the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. The bank commonly known as the Freedman’s Bank was set up to aid freed persons in their transition from enslavement to freedom. In 1870, the Columbia branch started in a room over the McGraw Livery Stable; it was the fourth and final branch established in the state of Tennessee. At the height of its success, the freedmen had more than $57 million in deposits. The bank closed all its branches in 1874 due to mismanagement and the financial panic of 1873.
The Campground Cemetery in Culleoka has served both the Black and white communities for more than 100 years and provides visual reminders of how segregation worked. The road that passes through the cemetery was a physical divider between races: On one side of the road are the Black graves; on the other side, the white. Jim Crow Laws prohibited races from being together and even with death it was enforced.
Read more about Black history in Tennessee here.