Growing up in Nashville in the late 1920s, Vivien Thomas might have faced two very different prospects for the future. One was to be overwhelmed by frustration at the limits imposed by segregation. Another prospect, borne of necessity and perseverance, emerged from within his family and the black community -- the promise of support and confidence in a better life through education and diligence. The choices Thomas made as a teenager determined how his path in life would be influenced by these opposing forces.
Pearl High School: A Beacon of Hope
Despite Nashville's segregated public school system, Pearl High School provided African Americans with an exceptional education in the 1920s. It was the only high school available to black students in middle Tennessee. As Vivien Thomas himself noted, Pearl's teachers shaped the hopes and dreams of generations of students. Pearl provided a foundation of excellence that propelled students to aim high in life. The school community -- close-knit, nurturing, and extremely disciplined -- instilled values and self-respect.
Lessons in Community
Alumni recall how teachers and the principal would use their familiarity with students' parents to impress upon them that their behavior had consequences for the family. The teachers' own efforts to make the most of the school's limited resources gave students a lesson in innovation and the power of ideas. Their efforts paid off in earning Pearl a strong reputation among colleges.
An Impact Beyond Graduation
Pearl High set a standard that remains high for public schools today. Graduates of Pearl High School have become successful businessmen, teachers, lawyers, doctors, college presidents, federal judges, actors, musicians -- including jazz trumpeter Adolphus "Doc" Cheatum -- social workers, architects and engineers. Many were leaders in the civil rights movements and continue to be leaders in their communities.
Learn more about the school:
A Brief History of Pearl High School
Learn more about Vivien Thomas' alma mater.
Pearl High School Memories
Four people talk about what made the school special.