Nelson Merry College
Jefferson City, Tennessee
Brief school profiles are found in T. O. Fuller’s History of the Negro Baptists of Tennessee (1936); Negro Education, a 1916 Department of the Interior bulletin; Tennessee Virtual Archives; Jefferson City, Tennessee by Linda T. Glass and Albert L. Lang; and the 1919 American Baptist Yearbook. The Nashville Globe carried some school news. The image of C. L. McAllister (right), president 1912-13, is from the Globe.
Nelson Merry College was chartered by the state of Tennessee on January 3, 1889. The Tennessee Virtual Archives credits Reverend Peter Guinn of the Martha Davis Baptist Church in Jefferson City with raising funds for building the school. The opening date and even the name of the school are disputed. Tennessee Virtual Archive says the school was founded “approximately 1890”; Fuller gives 1894; The Yearbook shows 1902. The Globe calls the 1930 commencement, the school’s 29th. Fuller says that the school was said to be named for Revered Nelson Merry, the freed Black minister. But Negro Education lists the name as Nelson Mary College. Many references hyphenate the name, suggesting two entities.
Fuller states that Nelson Merry College was created to “meet the needs of Baptists to train leaders for their religious organizations.” But despite the name, it is not clear that Nelson Merry ever offered collegiate work. Negro Education and Fuller both show that Nelson Merry was essentially a grade school at least to World War I. Glass and Lang call it an elementary and high school, emphasizing teacher education. But the composition of the 1917-20 faculty shows that students had access to classes in Latin, algebra, geometry, rhetoric, ethics, physiology and political economy.
The first newspaper notice in 1894 shows the Nelson Merry agent in town soliciting funds for the college. Through the years this was a common theme as newspapers reported on fundraisers and the need for them. Fuller reported that the local school district and the sponsoring churches were to jointly fund the school, but the “situation grew more and more embarrassing as debts piled up and the resources of the school decreased under the general financial stringency.” In 1932 the school was deeded to the state in exchange for state support. Becoming known as Nelson Merry High School, it was closed in 1965 as a result of desegregation.
Enrollment figures are available for the period 1915-1918, The Yearbook shows 154; Fuller shows 114 with 30 boarders. Apparently Nelson Merry had a strong music department. In 1907 students were able to perform the cantata Jephtah and His Daughter, “rendered to the satisfaction of all.” In 1918 the school did a musical to benefit the Red Cross, and the 1929 commencement featured musical selections.
Bricks and Mortar
The original building for which Rev. Guinn raised funds was a two-story frame structure with clapboard siding. Images show that it was supported by stone pillars instead of a foundation.
In 1907 the Globe reported that the Board of Trustees had approved the firing of 250,000 bricks to build a much needed dormitory. Referred to as Thompson Hall, this structure was two stories over a half basement, with steps leading up to the second-floor entrance.
In 1930 the Globe reported that a “high school for Negroes was to be built on the Nelson Merry College campus.” The funding was to be supplied in part by the Rosenwald Foundation. Images show it to be built on a Rosenwald “H” plan.
None of these buildings remain today.
The original Nelson Merry Hall. Image courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
High School teams had the name Lions
The sports history we have shows limited activity in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. College Football Data Warehouse lists five games between 1931 and 1935. Opponents were small Black Tennessee schools--Morristown College and Swift Memorial College--and some black high schools. Nelson Merry also played baseball, being on the schedule of Knoxville Colored High School in both 1927 and 1928. Finally in 1934, a high school student named Eddie McCollins won the long jump in the Tuskegee Relays.