BY SARAH R. GREGORY
Remembering George Clem School and the black educational institutions that preceded it -- and preserving that history -- was a topic of discussion Friday afternoon during the first day of the "Echoes of Emancipation" conference on the Tusculum College campus.
The conference continues until 5 p.m. today.
During a session dedicated to preserving area black history as it relates to education, Tusculum College professor Robin Fife and a group of students spoke about the George Clem School and recent efforts to reclaim some space in the building to advance the George Clem Multicultural Alliance's (GCMA) effort to preserve and promote black community history and culture.
After a brief introduction, Fife turned the program over to student Zachary Elliott, who, she said, "conducted quite a bit of research" on the topic in the weeks leading up to the conference.
"Originally, the Greeneville Negro College is what the George Clem School was called," Elliott said.
That school, established in1875, consisted of two buildings -- a chapel and a schoolhouse.
"The land was given by Andrew Johnson to his former slaves and also the brothers Thomas and George Clem," Elliott said.
The George Clem who received the land, he added, was not the namesake of the later school, but instead, his great-grandfather.
The original school was established through the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church, with the first president being J.W. Younge.
When established, Elliott said, Greeneville Negro College was the only black school in the region at the time, and attracted students from Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, and, likely, other states.
Student records of that period, however, Elliott noted, are few and rare.
"A lot of it has fallen apart, the history part of it," he said. "Mainly about the George Clem School is all you can really find."
In 1932, conference attendees were told, the Greeneville Board of Education took control of the property, and renamed the institution Greeneville College High School.
George W. Clem, a descendant of the George Clem to whom Andrew Johnson had given the land, became principal of the school in 1935, and remained in that role until his death.
Clem, Elliott said, contracted chicken pox, which led to encephalitis, and died shortly after his 31st birthday in 1939.
The Greeneville Board of Mayor and Aldermen renamed the school in his honor the same year.
Clem was considered an influential man in Greeneville as a well-respected brick mason, Elliott said.
During construction of downtown buildings -- many of which remain standing today -- Clem was often called upon to "turn the corner" -- the most difficult part of a brick-laying job.
Many of the corner bricks laid by Clem remain in place today, Elliott said.
In 1938, Greeneville College High School became an accredited four-year, 12-grade high school.
In 1949-1950, the original George Clem School was torn down and replaced by the current brick structure of the same name.
The school served as Greeneville's only black school until local racial integration of the public schools in 1965 -- the year of the George Clem School's final graduating class.
At that time, the school building was transformed into administrative offices for the Greeneville City School System, and it remained such until the Kathryn W. Leonard Administrative Office at the corner of Irish and West Depot streets was dedicated in 2007.
The school building remains in the care of the Greeneville City School System today, serving as the George Clem Operations Center, which houses a few offices, bus and transportation services, and a networking and data center, among other purposes.
In 2010, an official Tennessee Historical Commission marker was placed on West Summer Street near the Floral Street intersection to commemorate the school and its predecessors.
The newest chapter in the George Clem School's story is a recent partnership between the GCMA and the Greeneville City School System.
Fife said in the years of George Clem School, the local black community took a lot of pride in the school, its athletes, gymnasium, and school property.
At that time, the Negro Women's Civic Club was formed, with a goal of building a pool on the George Clem School property.
Once completed, she said, the pool served as a gathering place for the community -- a place to host picnics and meet with friends.
But in the decades following integration and George Clem School's closure for classroom use, the pool was filled with cement and had tennis courts constructed on top, and the gymnasium was converted into a bus maintenance garage.
And so, Fife said, it became the mission of GCMA to try to reclaim the school building.
A proposal for uses of space in the building was created -- including areas for health education and screenings, study, tutoring, and mentoring space, a museum, and a food pantry.
GCMA members, Fife said, were prepared to fight hard for the cause.
But, to the surprise of some, when GCMA approached the Greeneville City Schools about the proposal, they were met with support.
Fife said that Greeneville City Schools Director Dr. Linda Stroud was immediately "on board" with the proposal.
As a result, in recent months, Tusculum College students have worked on cleaning, painting, and stocking what will be used as a Multicultural Office in the George Clem building.
Once completed, the facility will provide a place for GCMA and other organizations to conduct meetings and coordinate efforts to "support, educate, and celebrate the local community," Fife said.
"It's still in progress, as many of our programs and projects are," she said.