The community atmosphere and educational environment of an all-black parochial school in East Chattanooga was so strong that it is still having effects today, said former teachers and students.
St. Francis School opened in 1951, three years before the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision declared that separate but equal public schools for white and black students were inherently unequal.
“The opportunity that I was given to look at education and student learning and what teachers could do was such a gift,” said Marilyn Chapman, a former teacher at the school and now school counselor at Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.
The founding of the school followed the Catholic Diocese of Nashville appointment of the Rev. John P. Baltz, a white man, to start a church for black Catholics.
The diocese first purchased property for the church in 1948 near the present site of Lamar’s Restaurant on M.L. King Boulevard (then Ninth Street).
Staff Photo by Gillian Bolsover
Tina White talks about her former school, St. Francis School, on Hickory Street. Ms. White attended the school from 1958 to 1967.
When the church erected larger facilities at the corner of Citico and Hickory streets in 1951, Father Baltz opened the school with 44 students, only four of whom were Catholic.
“I wanted to fix it in such a way that it could be used for the black community, or anybody, as time went on,” he told The East Tennessee Catholic in 2003 at a reunion of St. Francis students at Notre Dame High School.
The St. Francis campus consisted of the one-story school and church, a small convent for the nuns (all white) who exclusively served as teachers until the late 1960s, and a home for the priest.
Tina Ghiden White attended the school, which served grades one through eight, from 1958 through 1966 and “got a good education.”
She said the school had three classrooms, which served grades one through three, four through six, and seven and eight. She said the nuns divided the classroom into individual grades for instruction.
“If you were Catholic, you went to the school whether you had the money or not,” said Mrs. White, whose husband, Jerome, also attended the school. “I think probably my parents might’ve paid $15 a month for the three of us. But you know that $15 was hard to come by.”
Mass was celebrated every day, she said.
Mrs. White, 56, said her mother and another woman were in charge of the cafeteria and served daily breakfast and lunch to students.
“We only ate homemade, fresh food. We never had anything frozen,” she said. “Everything was fresh.”
Students who needed a little help were invited to help in the cafeteria and get their lunches for free, Mrs. White said.
“Nobody went hungry,” she said.
Fundraiser raffles and carnivals were community affairs, Mrs. White said.
“Everybody was invited,” she said. “It was to help maintain the school.”
Ms. Chapman taught at St. Francis its last year of existence, 1972-1973, and continued to teach at All Saints Academy, the merger of St. Francis School and Sts. Peter & Paul Elementary, until 1983. It closed in 1985.
(The church had closed in 1967, when then-Bishop Joseph A. Durick said the segregated church was “not as necessary now as it was in the beginning,” the Rev. William S. Bevington, pastor of the church and principal of Notre Dame High School, said in a Chattanooga Post article.)
The merged elementary school was housed in the former Sts. Peter & Paul/Notre Dame High School building on Eighth Street. Before Notre Dame moved to its current location in Glenwood, the elementary school occupied the first floor and the high school occupied the basement and second floor, said Ms. Salter, 61, a former All Saints teacher.
At the time of the merger, a cost-saving measure, St. Francis was still a “fairly decent-sized school” with around 200 students, she said.
Ms. Chapman, 61, said Father Baltz was ahead of his time in his educational thinking and prescient in his hiring of Naomi Parker as teacher and principal.
“He was instrumental in bringing (her) in and making parochial education available and had some very innovative and challenging ideas about education,” she said.
Ms. Parker, known as Sister Leonetta when she was a nun, “was so empowering of both students and teacher and parents,” Ms. Chapman said.
“She was such a visionary,” she said, adding that the Paideia education methods she received in recent years overlapped and were consistent with the training she received under the St. Francis and All Saints principal who died earlier this year. “It was like watching somebody walk their talk. It was a phenomenal experience.”
Later, after the schools merged, Mrs. White said she had her wedding reception in the hall where she once had her first Holy Communion service and attended daily Mass.
Eventually, the former St. Francis building was sold to the state of Tennessee and renovated to be a work release center for prisoners, Ms. Salter said.
Today it houses the 28th District Community Development Corp., a nonprofit organization which, according to its Web site, seeks to provide and administer programs, projects and activities that contribute to the social, economic, and civic development of persons residing in the neighborhoods and communities it serves.
Forestine Watson-Haynes, executive director of the 28th CDC, said she grew up in the Bushtown neighborhood but did not attend school there.
When the nonprofit agency began, she said, Father Baltz came and blessed the grounds. He also was a member of the agency’s advisory board.
Mrs. White, who had not returned to the school until last week since her wedding reception, said she has at least 10 friends she can trace to her days at the school.
“It was a school like you read about in a book,” she said. “I was very fortunate to grow up in those surroundings.”
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...