Before the construction of the Kennerly School, children in this neighborhood attended class in a room of the St. Mark’s Mission Church. The Sewanee Civic Association and the St. Mark’s Parent Teacher Association raised funds to build a new, two-room schoolhouse in the spring of 1949. The Civic Association dedicated the school on Aug. 28, in honor of John M. Kennerly (1875–1948), a devoted community leader and longtime teacher of African American children. After John Kennerly’s death, his widow and fellow teacher, Gertrude Kennerly, ran the school.
The Kennerly School was the only one for African American children on the mountain for kindergarten through eighth grade. If Black students wanted to go past the eighth grade, they had to travel down the mountain to attend the Townsend Rosenwald School in Winchester. In oral histories, community members have recalled catching the bus on Alabama Avenue for the hour-long ride there and back.
In 1943, Sewanee Civic Association minutes show that, despite their limited funds, the parents pitched in their own money to extend the school year for the Black children by one month to match the school year of the white children. In 1964, white and Black parents in Sewanee sued the Franklin County School Board, and the U.S. District Court forced the school system to desegregate. The Kennerly School closed, and the building later served as a Head Start center. It was demolished in 2010.
The Kennerly School is a revealing example of how Black parents in Sewanee advocated for their children and fought for them to have equal access to education. Despite low incomes and having to contend with the Sewanee Civic Association, parents ensured that the Kennerly School lived up to its namesake and
provided a safe and encouraging learning environment for Black children on the mountain. And yet even then, they were realists. They knew this education was both separate from and unequal to what Sewanee’s white children received. That was why they continued to push for and win equal opportunities for all children in Franklin County.
Teacher Highlight: Ophelia Miller
Community members speak fondly of Ophelia Miller, who taught children at the Kennerly School in the 1950s and then at the integrated Sewanee Elementary School after 1964. Mrs. Miller was apart of the group of community leaders that led the desegregation of the Kennerly school. Mrs. Miller was also chairman of the Colored Community Center Committee in the 1950s, so she was in charge of running the monthly committee meetings, handling the budget for the a majority of the events for the community, and reporting about committee activity to the Sewanee Civic Association.