Historic Bridgeforth School
Named honor of J.T. Bridgeforth, a prominent black educator in the early twentieth century, Bridgeforth School became the first African-American high school in Giles County. Built with funds from the Works Progress Administration, initial construction of the school grounds began in 1936 under the direction of nationally recognized African-American architects Mckissack and Mckissack, whose grandfather had been enslaved nearby and who, in 1922, became the first African-American architecture firm in the state. Weeks before the school officially opened, large scale flooding along the Upper Cumberland River forced fleeing citizens to take refuge in the school. In March of 1937, the first school sessions were held by sixty-eight students and three teachers. The school's curriculum focused on academic education largely over of vocational skills. In 1950, young veterans under the direction of H.H. Simms, the school's trade's teacher, gained work experience when they expanded to the school to include grades 1-6. By 1959, in an attempt to create more equal conditions between white and black schools and delay integration sparked by the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board, Giles County built a new high school on adjacent property and moved the lower grades into the original Bridgeforth School. In 1965, Giles County became the first county in Tennessee to voluntarily desegregate schools.
Backstory and Context
The location of the Bridgeforth School has its roots dating back to the Civil War, when Union Soldiers, particularly the 103rd United States Colored Troops, occupied Fort Hill. A contraband camp formed at the base of the Hill and would be the foundation of the African-American Community that grew around. The first city funded school for African-american students was erected in 1889 and around 1900 the first county funded African-American school was formed in Pulaski in the basement of the Campbell Church and then later to the Big Harper Church. Both schools did not offer a full high school curriculum, stopping at eleventh grade. In 1931-1932, the two schools merged and added a twelfth grade. By 1936, increased student enrollment necessitated the building of a new school.
Completed in 1937, The Bridgeforth School follows a T-pattern, a style popular throughout the country during this time. The school was opened as the only African American high school in Giles County and as was also common, African American schools received less funding and were often built with subdued features. The school was built by Jackson Taylor and designed by architectural firm McKissack & McKissack, who were able to ride out the Great Depression by projects supported by the Works Progress Administration, such as the Bridgforth Highschool. (W.P.A). A plaque reading “U.S.A 1936-1937 W.P.A” is attached to the exterior wall.
Students living within Pulaski were provided a free education, however, students living outside of the city limits were required to pay tuition. When it first opened, the Bridgeforth School was the only public school for African Americans and only offered grades 9-12, by the 1938-1939 school year, grades 7 & 8 were added. A public bussing system was not brought to the school until 1945, which meant that prior to this, actually getting to the school was difficult for rural students. In 1950 grades first through six were added when an addition was erected. In 1959, to satisfy the rulings of Brown vs. Board, a new highschool was built for African-American students and the old Bridgeforth school became only for grades 1-8.
In 1966, the county and city finally integrated the school system in Giles County and consolidated the schools, resulting of the closing of the Bridgeforth Elementary housed in the original building and the conversion of the Bridgeforth Highschool into the Pulaski Junior High School.