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.
A Brief History of Pearl High School
In the late 19th century, when Pearl High School was founded, African American communities understood that education could give them a foothold of opportunity. Literacy rates among Southern blacks grew much faster than among whites. From 1890 to 1930, the proportion of African Americans in the South aged 10 and older who could read nearly doubled.
Pride in the Face of Inequity
This advance happened in spite of the reality that with racial segregation, states allotted just a fraction of their education budgets to black schools. In 1929, the year that Vivien Thomas graduated from Pearl, Tennessee spent over $1.59 on white schools for every dollar spent on black schools. Visitors noticed the community pride that made Pearl's achievements possible against the odds. In his autobiography, black leader W.E.B. DuBois noted that before he visited Nashville in the 1880s, he had never seen people of color with so much self-assurance.
The School's Origins
Pearl High School grew out of an elementary school founded in 1883. It was one of the first high schools for African Americans in Tennessee. Its first graduating class consisted of seven students. At its peak, Pearl graduated more than 200 students a year.
Over more than a century, Pearl has undergone many changes. It has changed locations twice, once in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, moving to the spot where the building stands today. The school building has remained a prominent fixture in its North Nashville neighborhood, never moving more than two miles from its original location.
One Proud Moment
One of Pearl High School's proudest moments came in 1966, the year that Tennessee high school sports were integrated. That year, Pearl's basketball team played to victory in the State Championships. Coach Cornelius Ridley's unstoppable Pearl High School Tigers defeated Memphis Treadwell 63-54, finishing the season with a perfect record of 31-0. It felt like more than an athletic triumph; it was the vindication of the whole Pearl community when given the opportunity to compete on a broader -- and fairer -- playing field.
In 1969, the school district brought white teachers to Pearl to integrate the faculty. By 1972, the school began to accommodate both black and white students.
In 1986, Pearl's facilities were expanded and renamed the Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School. Today, the school draws gifted and talented students from throughout the county who have a special interest in health, science and engineering. One hundred twenty students graduate each year. Students who would have attended Pearl High School in the past now go to the Pearl-Cohn Comprehensive High School, a much larger school with more than 1,500 students.
Even with all of these changes, the special character of the school remains in the hearts of its students. A small museum in the older section of the school bears witness to Pearl's rich history and preserves the past for others to see.