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Winchester’s Black History Is On Display at Townsend Cultural Center

From the outside, the Townsend Cultural Center looks like any other brick building. At first glance, it might not look like anything special to a passerby, but that assessment could not be any further from the truth. While the building itself is historically significant, the educational roots spread deeper than just the visible brick and mortar.

photo: Townsend Cultural Center

Located about a mile south of the historic square in Winchester, the cultural center resides where the Townsend School operated until its last graduating class walked across the stage in 1966. It was the only African American High school in Franklin County until it closed.

The legacy of the Townsend School building starts with what it represents to the community. It is a physical point of reference to show the importance of education to the African American community after emancipation. The perseverance and dedication of one United States Colored Troop (USCT) soldier helped to lay the foundation of educational excellence for the Franklin County African American community and their descendants.

photo: Townsend Cultural Center

Rev. Anderson “Doc” Townsend

The most influential person who spearheaded getting the school built was Rev. Anderson Townsend. Commonly known as “Doc”—or D.A.—Townsend was born enslaved in Franklin County, Tenn. in 1848. He enlisted in the United States military in Huntsville, Ala. one month after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. After serving in the 15th Regiment of the USCT, he immediately pursued his education at the Nashville Normal and Bible/Theological Institute.

Upon completing his degree, he returned to Franklin County where he began to teach. He taught hundreds of students throughout his nearly 50-year career as an educator. Townsend retired from teaching in 1919, but he continued being an advocate for Black children to have better public schools. He worked tirelessly to convince the school board to apply for funds from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation.

Townsend appeared before the school board many times on behalf of African American students. He played a pivotal role in getting the new school built for the community. Once the Rosenwald school was built, the community decided to name the new school after Townsend.

The Townsend School

In 1925, two years before Townsend died, the Rosenwald school was finished. The school was paid for by a combination of donations from the African American community, public education funds and the Julius Rosenwald Fund. As a school, Townsend was and continues to be a living monument. The existing brick building was not completed until 1933 due to the first one being destroyed by a fire.

The original school held classes through eighth grade. By 1934, the curriculum grew to offer a full high school education. This made Townsend the only high school in Franklin County that African Americans could attend. The school soon expanded to include a gym, science lab, library and offices. The expansion benefited the students but was also a way for the school board to quiet calls for integration.

photo: Townsend Cultural Center

Townsend Cultural Center

The school educated and served the African American community from 1934 through 1966. Since that time, the building has continued to be of service to the county. Over the years, it has been the Franklin County Board of Education, a kindergarten program and an alternative school.

Today, the building is owned by Franklin County with dedicated space honoring the legacy of Doc Townsend and the wonderful contributions the school made to the community. The building is now the Townsend Cultural Center. It has an expansive collection of photos and historical memorabilia. There are three main areas of exhibits available for visitors to see.

photo: Townsend Cultural Center

The Heritage Room gives the history and timeline of Doc Townsend and the school. Next door, the Music and Sports Room is dedicated to the excellence of the school’s athletic teams and drum corps. The Townsend football team won the 1958 State Football Championship and remains one of the most well-known teams in the county to this day. Visitors can see some of the trophies won by the school plus other memorabilia and pictures.

photo: Townsend Cultural Center

Lastly, there is a Classroom Replica set up to give visitors a real view into what a classroom looked like during the days Townsend operated as a school. One side is staged with memorabilia that includes real student and teacher desks. The other side of the room contains more items donated to the center by former students and teachers.

photo: Townsend Cultural Center

Karen Morris, secretary of Board of Directors for the Townsend Cultural Center, says the main takeaway she wants people to know about the Townsend School is that “the school offered a rich educational experience and was fun. Townsend had sports and home economics like all the other schools. They taught their students more than just reading, writing and arithmetic.

“The fight was on for education. The Black community wanted more than to work in the fields and homes. The school gave Black people the pride of having an education and not being only domestic.”

photo: Townsend Cultural Center

The Townsend Cultural Center is located at 913 S. Shepherd Street in Winchester. The center offers tours to students, groups and individuals. Contact them directly via their Facebook page to schedule a date and time. Read more about Tennessee's Black history here.


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