Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Immaculate Mother Academy

By Zachary Keith

Plate 131 of 1897 Sanborn Atlas of Nashville (updated 1911) that shows Immaculate Mother Academy, including the 1907 addition.
Tennessee State Library and Archives Map Collection

Nashville’s street names reveal much about its past. Drexel Street, a seemingly insignificant side street that runs between Seventh and Eighth avenues, is a remnant of an important half-century of our city’s history. It was named for Saint Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and the second American canonized by the Catholic Church. After a plea from the head of Nashville’s Roman Catholic Diocese, Bishop Thomas Byrne, Drexel agreed to establish a private Catholic school for Nashville’s African-American youth. In February 1905, she purchased the property between Stevenson (Seventh Avenue) and Ewing streets across from Central Street (Drexel Street) from Samuel J. Keith for $25,000, without disclosing her purpose.

The Nashville American, Feb. 14, 1905.

Samuel J. Keith, Colonial Dames of America Portraits in Tennessee Painted Before 1866
Tennessee State Library and Archives Photograph Collection

Keith discovered Drexel’s plan for the property from the Nashville American article. Outraged, he attempted to buy back his land and house from Drexel, even offering a $2,500 charitable donation in addition to the purchase amount. The white neighbors also reacted poorly to the idea of an African-American school nearby, ardently protesting its construction and nearly filing an injunction in the county court.[1] The residents petitioned the city council to open Central Street (present-day Drexel), effectively condemning the purchased building, stating “that they would do all in their power to prevent the establishment of the school.”[2]

Drexel stood her ground and the Academy of the Immaculate Mother opened Sept. 5, 1905, to a class of 50 female students. In 1907, the student population grew to 195 and the school needed to expand, thus a new building was constructed next to the original house. By 1908, over two hundred students packed the halls and by 1921, the then coed school boasted eight grade levels, 4 teachers and 235 students.[3]

From 1905 until 1954 the Academy of the Immaculate Mother served as an educational institution for African-American boys and girls as well as a normal school for aspiring African-American teachers.  In 1954, Nashville Catholic schools became some of the nation’s first to adhere to Brown v. Board of Education and the students of Immaculate Mother Academy transferred to Father Ryan and Cathedral School and the school closed.[4]   Immaculate Mother’s alumni included Robert E. Lillard, one of Nashville’s first African-American city councilmen, lawyer and judge.[5]

Addendum: The back of a postcard of the academy owned by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament contained the inscription "Our first Im. Mother's convent (the frame bldg.). It had been a slave market, as shown by sign-boards we found in the cellar." However, an exhaustive search has not been able to corroborate this fact other than uncited mentions in various publications.

Immaculate Mother Academy students sitting on the front steps of the 1907 addition
Courtesy of the Archives of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament

1907 addition to the Immaculate Mother Academy
Courtesy of the Archives of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament

Students standing in front of Immaculate Mother’s Academy, approximately 1941
Courtesy of the Archives of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament

For further reading on Drexel see Katharine Drexel: The Riches-to-Rags Life Story of an American Catholic Saint by Cheryl C. D. Hughes.

For further reading on Immaculate Mother Academy and development of that neighborhood see Steven Hoskins dissertation: A Restless Landscape: Building Nashville History and Seventh and Drexel

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett


[1] “Ready for opening.” The Nashville American, Sept. 4, 1905.
[2] “Petition Council: Neighbors want Central Street opened through Keith land.” The Nashville American, May 26, 1905.
[3] Ryan, James. Directory of Catholic colleges and schools. Washington: National Catholic Welfare Conference. Bureau of Education, 1921.
[4] Hoskins, Steven (2009). A Restless Landscape: Building Nashville  History and  Seventh and  Drexel  (Doctoral dissertation) Middle Tennessee State University.
[5] Wynn, Linda T. “Robert Emmett Lillard” Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.

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