University District

The past and possibility of old Messick High

Messick High School opened at what is now the corner of Spottswood Avenue and Greer Street in 1908 It was Shelby County’s first consolidated high school -- a school that's fed by multiple lower schools --- and served the students of three nearby elementary schools. Today it's located at the center of Messick Buntyn, a neighborhood straddling the blurry border between Orange Mound and the University District.

“It was really the center of everything that was going on in that part of town. They had some churches that had worked very hard to establish there, but the school was really the [most] important part of the neighborhood," said Dorene Holman.

Holman lived five houses from the school's playground from 1951 until 1971. Her four children graduated from Messick. The oldest started in second grade, but the younger three were all part of the Twelve Year Club, students who attended from first through 12th grades. 

The capstone of the original Messick High building sits on the ground following the 1982 demolition. (Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries) “When you’ve got four children, you’ve got to live close to the school where they can walk,” quipped Holman, who now lives in a retirement community in Germantown.

Messick’s last class graduated in 1981. The original building was torn down the following year and the remaining buildings were repurposed as an adult education facility. In February 2016, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development abruptly ended the program citing low graduation rates. Since then the complex has been partially vacant and partially used for Shelby County Schools support staff.

Now that other shuttered schools like the historic Melrose High and Georgia Avenue Elementary are seeing new interest and investment, residents wonder if there is hope again for Messick.

Related: “Shuttered for 40 years, old Melrose High School to open for weekend Orange Mound celebration

The Birth of Messick

Messick High School was named for Elizabeth Messick. Raised in Memphis, she was superintendent of the county's schools from 1904 until 1908.

In its earliest days, students who lived too far to walk were “bussed” by horse and wagon. Students' mothers provided hot lunches and organized to become West Tennessee’s first cafeteria program.

The area around the school was predominantly small family farms. When Messick commissioned the school, she received criticism that it was too big to ever reach capacity. But in 1912 the West Tennessee Normal School, now University of Memphis, opened nearby. It brought with it people who wanted housing and amenities and sparked booming growth that continued through the 1960s.

By the mid-1920s, the Messick school had added new buildings and was serving all 12 grades. In the 1930s, it was annexed by the city's school system as Memphis absorbed the surrounding communities of Buntyn, Normal Station and Orange Mound.

A map drawn circa 1915 shows the newly constructed West Tennessee Normal School, the rural areas around it and Messick High School in the bottom right corner. (Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries)

A Community Place

Holman has many fond memories of Messick and the surrounding neighborhood.

“One of the coaches described that neighborhood pretty good I thought. He said it was not a very affluent neighborhood, it was just a group of good, honest, hardworking people that wanted to do what was right,” said Holman.

“There was a little grocery store tucked in on the corner every few blocks,” she continued. “Down on Semmes Street, which is real close, there was a drug store and a cleaners and a little department store, Rich’s Department Store.”

Holman said Messick was a hub of activity with wonderful instructors who ran a tight ship.

“It had wonderful plays and musicals,” she continued. “There was always something going on up there to go to, and they took good care of the kids. One of the plays was Sound of Music. [The drama teacher] had some young girls that had really wonderful voices. It was as good a Sound of Music that you’d see anywhere, I think.” 

Former Messick Buntyn resident Dorene Holman (R) stands in front of the old Messick School auditorium with her niece Leah Flagg-Wiggins. Holman's four children graduated from Messick and Flagg-Wiggins was president of the 'Twelve Year Club', students that attended Messick for 12 years. (Ziggy Mack)

The school had a reputation for quality education and several alumni and staff have had notable accomplishments including former Tennessee Supreme Court Judge William Fones, NFL player Ted Davis, opera singer Ruth Welting, musicians Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, former Memphis City Schools Superintendent Ernest C. Ball and former Tennessee Commissioner of Education Ada Jane Walters.

Holman recalled a time when her oldest daughter was in middle school and Elvis Presley performed at the monthly school assembly.

“Elvis, before Elvis really got going, he was just trying to find places he could go,” she said. “I remember a friend of my daughter, we were in the front yard talking about it late in the afternoon the day he had been there. She said, 'I just cried! He was so good, I cried!,' and I said, 'Well, Joanne, why did you cry?' She said, 'Well, Mrs. Holman, you had to do something.'”

Leaving Messick

In the 1970s, Messick saw a major drop in attendance as the white families who made up the majority of the school’s attendance moved farther east. In the early 1980s, the Memphis City Schools Board of Education made the decision to close the school and demolish the original building.

“After they tore the old building down, it didn’t seem to have much personality after that,” said Holman.

By 1971 her children had all graduated and moved on to the University of Memphis, then Memphis State University, and she like many of her neighbors moved away.

Some of the remaining school buildings were repurposed as an adult education center that operated for at least five years before the program ended in 2016. One building was condemned and several others were used to house SCS support staff including parts of the transportation, nutrition, custodial and grounds keeping departments. 

Part of the Messick school complex was repurposed as an adult education center until 2016 when the program ended. (Ziggy Mack)
“Currently there are no plans to repurpose the Messick facility,” said Natalia Powers, SCS's chief communications officer, in a statement to High Ground News.

“Once the transition of our administrative locations into the new SCS Headquarters is completed, we will most likely bring suggestions to the school board and possibly conduct a community engagement process to obtain their ideas on the future of the facility. The school board will then make their final decision and vote.”

Shelby County Schools plans to consolidate their administrative staff from 11 builds to one, the old Bayer Consumer Health located at 3030 Jackson Avenue. They purchased in July 2018 for $6.6 million and have not yet confirmed a timeline for the move. 

Community Thoughts

While SCS considers the fate of Messick, community members who live nearby shared their vision for the facility. 

An employee of the SCS custodial department said she could see the complex become a recreation facility, perhaps as an expansion with nearby Davis Community Center. 

Rickey Collins graduated from Messick in 1974 and still lives a few streets away.

"It's a quiet neighborhood. We don't get too much excitement," he said.

Collins said an indoor pool might be nice. He'd also like to see some sort of safe house or support center for women in the neighborhood, similar to The House and My Cup of Tea. Collins said the adult education center was also an important purpose for the building and much-needed in the neighborhood. He'd like to see that return.

"They need to bring it back so these folks can get their G.E.D. I think it would be best." 

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
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