Friday, April 18, 2014

Meigs School

By Debie Oeser Cox

In his report to the School Board in 1881, Superintendent Samuel Caldwell detailed the over-crowding of schools. Vandavill School, the only school in East Nashville for African-American children, was especially overcrowded.  Caldwell suggested that the city government should purchase a lot in the East Nashville and construct a school to replace Vandavill, which was in a rented building at the corner of Spring and Wetmore Streets. A lot was soon purchased on Georgia Street (now Ramsey) and construction on the new school began.  The school lot was near the middle of the block of what is now the 700 block of Ramsey Street. 

Meigs School - Artwork of Nashville

The new Meigs School opened in 1883 and Superintendent Caldwell reported to the board that the school had been named in honor of  Return Jonathan Meigs, a member of the first school board of the Nashville City Schools. Meigs was born in Kentucky in 1801 and moved to Nashville in 1834. He was the Recording Secretary of the Tennessee Historical Society and the first Tennessee State Librarian.  He was a Trustee of the University of Nashville and the Tennessee School for the Blind.  

Annual Report 1883-84 Superintendent Nashville City Schools

Meigs also served in the Tennessee State Senate, 27th General Assembly.  Because of his strong Union leanings, Meigs left the South with the outbreak of the U. S. Civil War.  In 1863 he was appointed, by President Lincoln, as clerk of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, a position he held until his death in 1891.

The cost of the lot and new two story building was $13,500 and had space for 600 children.  The beginning enrollment was about 400, in grades first through fourth.  R. S. White was appointed as Principal. Mr. White had previously taught at Knowles Street School.  In subsequent years, additional grades were added, through the eighth grade.

1884 Nashville City Directory

In 1886, Mrs. Lizzie Porter (click to learn more), wife of Sandy Porter, attempted to enroll her sons, Tolbert Calvin and James Rice Porter at the Nashville High School, as there was no high school for black students.  The school board refused to admit the Porter’s sons.  The efforts of the Porter family, encouraged other black parents to appear at the high school to enroll their children.  All were refused.  This caused a public outcry, and in mid-September well attended meetings were held to pursue the matter with the school board.  A petition was passed among the crowd asking the school board to act. 

The school board met and adopted a motion to reorganize Meigs School so as to meet the requirements of a high school, giving Meigs the distinction of being the first high school for African American students in Nashville.  Grades nine and ten were added immediately and the students who wanted to attend the new high school were told to report to the second floor of the Meigs School on Monday, September 20th, 1886.  Both of Lizzie and Sandy Porter's sons enrolled.   Tolbert C. Porter was in the first graduating class from Meigs, in June of 1888.  James Rice Porter graduated from Meigs High School in June of 1889.

Mr. D. N. Crosthwait, who was previously assigned as a principal at Belleview School, became the first teacher in the high school grades. The same text books that had been used at Fogg High School were used by students at Meigs.  Among the courses offered were Algebra, Geometry, Latin, Physical Geography, General History, Natural Philosophy, Music and Drawing.

In 1896, Pearl High School was opened for black students in Nashville.  Meigs once again became a grade school with classes for students from grades one to six. 

Meigs School was rebuilt in 1934 for a cost of nearly $36,000.  Apparently the old school building had been damaged in the 1933 tornado as the building funds came from the Tornado Bond fund. As years passed grades were added and Meigs became a first through ninth grade school.  Additions were made to the building in the 1950's. In 1956 the School Board purchased properties at 701, 703, 705, 707 and 709 Ramsey St and 107 and 109 North 7th Street to expand the campus and to allow for another addition.  After the second addition in 1957, Meigs School spanned the entire block between North 7th and North 8th Streets.  

Photo Credit - Metro Nashville Archives

In 1958 Meigs became a high school again, adding a grade per year with 1963 being the first year for graduation.  The last class graduated from Meigs High School in 1969.  In 1970, only grades eight and nine were taught at Meigs.

In 1983, the Metro Nashville School system took a new direction when three academic magnet schools were opened.  One of the magnet schools, based on a liberal arts education, was placed in the Caldwell School building at Meridian and Foster Streets.  In 1985 this magnet school was moved a few blocks away to the Meigs building. Meigs Magnet Middle School serves grades fifth through eighth. Enrollment in Meigs is based on academic achievement, including above average TCAP scores in math and reading. Students hoping to attend Meigs Magnet, if eligible, submit an application and are assigned a random number.  There are always more applicants than slots for students, which results in a long waiting list for the school.   

In 2001, construction of a new building for Meigs students began, replacing the 1934 structure.  The school was completed by the start of the school year in 2004, and can accommodate 700 pupils.  The school is rated as a Reward School by the Tennessee Board of Education, scoring in the top 5% of schools in Tennessee, for overall student achievement.  In 2013, Meigs Magnet was one of four Tennessee schools, honored by the U. S. Dept. of Education, as a Blue Ribbon school.  The honor was awarded because of the high level of academic achievement by Meigs students. 

Annual reports of the Superintendents of Nashville Public Schools, 1857 – 1946. 
A Bicentennial Chronicle, Metropolitan Public Schools, 1976
Metro Nashville Archives -  Verticle Files, Meigs School.
Metro Nashville Archives  - Metro Schools, Board of Education school property files.
Meigs Magnet School Wikipedia - - Nashville City Directories


  1. The historic marker for Meigs is one of the ones missing from "the list".

  2. I noticed that. Maybe they left the school markers off because so many of them have incorrect information. The Meigs' marker lists the wrong person for whom the school was named. I really don't know why they were not included. I have a book published in 1977 that lists historical markers in Davidson co. and there were a lot more markers in the book than on either list and I would think there would have been a good number placed after 1977.


Comments are welcome and will be moderated.