By Denise Gallagher, CHP Graduate Research Assistant
In the 1973 hit song “Nutbush City Limits,” American singer Tina Turner describes “a little old town in Tennessee” located “on highway number nineteen” where “people keep the city clean.” If you know the song, the music should be flooding into your head by now. For others not so familiar, the song’s funky beat and history-minded first few lines will surely grab your attention. Turner sings, “Church house, Gin house, Schoolhouse, Outhouse.” Right away, Turner sets the scene of a Southern agricultural landscape and keeps on providing details related to the social and cultural life of her birthplace. A welcome hit for Ike and Tina Turner, the song also sanctified Nutbush as sacred ground in rock-and-roll history. Tourists from around the world flock to Nutbush to take a photo under the welcome sign and, if they are lucky, see the inside of the nationally registered Woodlawn Baptist Church, where Turner sang in the choir.
Soon, another historical landmark will thrill Tina Turner fans and, at the same time, offer the chance to learn about African American schoolhouses. On Friday, September 26, at 10:30 a.m., the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center (WTDHC) in Brownsville, Tennessee, will celebrate the grand opening of the Tina Turner Museum at the Flagg Grove School. The event will be the culmination of more than two years of fundraising and planning to preserve the one-room schoolhouse once attended by Tina Turner (then known as Anna Mae Bullock) and founded by her ancestors.
In February 2014, I visited the Flagg Grove School with fellow graduate student Amanda Barry and Dr. Carroll Van West, director of the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP), at the request of Sonia Outlaw-Clark, the WTDHC’s director. Our task was to produce interpretive panels about the building’s history, to be installed along with a collection of Tina Turner memorabilia.
Interior of the Flagg Grove School during its transformation into a museum , with panels awaiting installation.
The Flagg Grove School is a one-room schoolhouse erected near the Nutbush community in Haywood County. The school’s founder, Benjamin Brown Flagg, was born in 1856 on a farm in North Carolina. After the Civil War, Flagg migrated with his family to West Tennessee, where the Flaggs acquired large parcels of land. Flagg married and became an ordained Baptist preacher (his brother, George Flagg, was Turner’s great-grandfather). In 1889, Flagg sold one acre of land to seven trustees for the purpose of building a school to educate children from the 1st through the 8th grade. In order to operate, the community-funded school required parents to pay $1.00 a month and an additional $0.25 in the winter for wood to heat the school.
Flagg Grove adheres to the typical characteristics of African American schoolhouses in the South during the time of segregation. They were overwhelmingly rural, small (one or two classrooms), and privately operated. Teachers faced high student-teacher ratios, irregular attendance, uneven grade distributions, and the general “overagedness” of students, who were often pulled away from their studies to do farm work. In addition to the general chaos of one-room schooling, the early Flagg Grove teachers may have faced hostility from white citizens threatened by the linkage between education and political rights. Haywood County is one of Tennessee’s two predominantly African American counties in a seven-county region that was home to nearly one half of the black population in Tennessee. Despite the challenges, approximately fifty African American schools were constructed in Haywood County in the years after the Civil War.
The Flagg Grove School served the Nutbush community for more than seventy years. Students wishing to attend high school traveled twelve miles to the Haywood County Training School (later called Carver High School) in Brownsville. As late as the mid-1950s, Flagg Grove was surrounded by trees and several sharecropper shacks. In 1967, as part of federally mandated school desegregation, twenty-three African American schools in Haywood County were closed, probably including Flagg Grove. In 1968, the school and surrounding one-acre lot were sold at auction.
The preservation of the Flagg Grove School is a unique story of fortuitous adaptive reuse and community activism. The school’s new owner, Joe Stephens, made use of the building as a barn and corncrib, inadvertently preserving the school. This reuse left the schoolhouse intact and relatively unmodified except for the addition of two sheds on either side. Forty years later, Outlaw-Clark recognized the potential of moving the school from Nutbush to her facility, located off Interstate 40, and began asking Stephens if he would donate the school. She believed that the historic structure could “become an integral part in telling our story, especially where education and music are concerned in Haywood County.” Eventually, Stephens offered the school if Outlaw-Clark could find a way to move it.
To accomplish her vision, Outlaw-Clark collaborated with the Stephens family, former students, Nutbush community members, the City of Brownsville, and Tina Turner herself. A non-profit group called Friends of the Delta Heritage Center was created to facilitate fundraising. In April 2012, the city of Brownsville funded the relocation of the school to the WTDHC because the schoolhouse tied directly to the goal of promoting regional heritage and increasing tourism in rural West Tennessee. A few months later, local preservationists helped strip the school of its barn encasement and prepared the structure for transport. The Flagg Grove School was loaded on a truck and moved to the parking lot of the WTDHC.
Exterior of the Flagg Grove School after its move to the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center and before its transformation into a museum.
The challenge facing Outlaw-Clark was how to interpret the building both as a museum dedicated to the musical legacy of Tina Turner and as a historic school. In January 2013, Tina Turner’s staff began fieldwork in much the same way the CHP operates. One of Turner’s long-time assistants traveled to Brownsville and spent a week touring the area, meeting with family and friends, and planning for a museum. In the April 2013 issue of German Vogue magazine, Turner (age 73) was featured on the cover and talked about the Flagg Grove School project. She said, “I’m involved in the project and will be even more so, since I found out that it is really connected to my background, to my family. I’m very proud that I’m the one in my family, who can conserve this history.”
Turner’s team produced a design plan that involved major changes to the architectural features and historic materials yet still provided for a rural, one-room schoolhouse experience. Changes included replacing the windows, repairing the ceiling, altering the exit door, reinstalling the interior beadboard, and other modern updates. The team was led by world-renowned designer Stephen Sills, who created a memorable display of costumes, gold records, and memorabilia in tall glass cases, fitted with museum lighting. Because the display cases are glass, visitors will be able to see the objects as well as the wall behind, which helps uphold the experience of being in a one-room school.
Interior of the Flagg Grove School during its transformation into a museum (view of wall with color-blocked paint).
The CHP’s task was to produce interpretive panels that blended with the established design and expanded the visitor experience to include historic information about the school itself. We produced four panels that explore the architecture of rural African American schoolhouses and honor the experiences of Flagg Grove’s teachers and students. The size and overall design of Flagg Grove reflected the philosophy of the Progressive reform movement that aimed to standardize and improve rural schools.
The simple rectangular shape, gabled roof, location of the doors, and banks of evenly spaced windows strongly resemble those in the Community School Plans guide produced by the Rosenwald Fund after 1921. Many of the Rosenwald design concepts were adapted to suit the needs and budget of the Nutbush community. Flagg Grove exhibits many details included in the Rosenwald plan I-A for one-room schools facing north or south. One side of the building features two sections of evenly spaced windows, which was a significant design innovation to improve air-flow and light levels. On the interior, the upper section of the walls was painted white to accentuate the natural light, while the lower section was painted dark green to reduce the glare for seated students. This type of color-blocked paint treatment was explicitly dictated in Community School Plans.
Interior of the Flagg Grove School during its transformation into a museum (platform on left and cubbies on right).
Instead of cloak rooms near the entrance door, Flagg Grove has simple cubbies for storage. Instead of an industrial room behind the teacher’s desk, Flagg Grove has a raised platform to elevate the teacher from the class. Remarkably, several desks were found in the Flagg Grove School, which illustrate a significant design change. Rosenwald officials mandated the use of mass-produced “patent desks” made of wood and cast iron, but because buying new desks was not always possible, many communities continued to use the “Tuskegee-style” wooden desks, benches, and pews. Flagg Grove’s inventory reflects both styles.
To experience the transformed Flagg Grove School and to learn about the experiences of its teachers and students, be sure to visit the WTDHC located at Exit 56 on Interstate 40. To learn more about the African American history of Haywood County, visit the Dunbar Carver Museum in Brownsville, Tennessee.
Interior of the Flagg Grove School during its transformation into a museum (desks of different design).
Granberry, Dorothy. “Black Community Leadership in a Rural Tennessee County, 1865-1903.” The Journal of Negro History 83, no. 4 (Autumn 1998).
Hoffschwelle, Mary S. The Rosenwald Schools of the American South. New Perspectives on the History of the South. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.
The Stephen Sills Blog (Oct. 15, 2013, entry on Flagg Grove School).