Behind the School Name: A.Z. Kelley Elementary School

A number of Nashville schools are named for African-American leaders – both hometown heroes and national icons. Throughout Black History Month we’ll be sharing the stories behind some of these school names.

is named after a Nashville civil rights activist and barber who launched a lawsuit to desegregate the city’s public schools.

Mr. Alfred Z. Kelley, affectionately referred to as A.Z. Kelley, stood as a leader in the Nashville community during a time when desegregation was mandated yet being ignored after the historic lawsuit (Brown v. Board of Education) in Topeka, Kansas, in 1954 that ended legal segregation in all U.S. public schools.

Pictured, left to right, Kelly Miller Smith Sr., Thurgood Marshall, Z. Alexzander Looby and A.Z. Kelley. Credit: NPL archives

体育投注Pictured, left to right, Kelly Miller Smith Sr., Thurgood Marshall, Z. Alexzander Looby and A.Z. Kelley. Credit: NPL archives

体育投注Kelley led the push for desegregation of Nashville’s city schools when he decided to become the lead plaintiff in a historic federal class-action lawsuit ().

体育投注The lawsuit was filed against Nashville Public Schools in federal district court on September 23,1955, on behalf of his son Robert Kelley, who was refused admittance into all-white East Junior High School.

Included in the lawsuit were 20 other African-American students who were refused entry to other Nashville city schools.

Robert commuted to all-black Pearl High School even though East High School was within walking distance of his home.

The case was fought and, two years later, won by Kelley’s legal team, which included local attorneys Z. Alexander Looby and Avon Williams Jr. and was later joined by the national legal and education director of the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, who would ultimately become the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Kelley’s mission to enroll his son in a school closer to his home would have an impact that stretched far beyond his immediate gratification.

“Compulsory Segregation” Abolished

In 1956, the Nashville Board of Education abolished “compulsory segregation” of first grade and began the process of desegregating schools.

体育投注Nineteen African-American 6-year-old children formally registered to attend first grade. These are the elementary schools first slated to be desegregated, and the names of the African-American children who enrolled:

  • 体育投注Buena Vista - Erroll Groves, Ethel Mai Carr and Patricia Guthrie

  • Jones - Barbara Jean Watson, Marvin Moore, Richard Rucker, Charles Battles and Cecil Ray Jr.

  • Feher - Charles E. Ridley, Willis E. Lewis, Bobby Cabknor, Linda McKinley and Rita Buchanan.

  • 体育投注Bailey - Era May Bailey

  • Glenn - Lajuanda Street, Jacqueline Griffith and Sinclair Lee Jr.

  • Emma Clemons - Joy Smith

  • 体育投注Hattie Cotton - Patricia Watson

体育投注However, due to “improper transfer papers,” three students were unable to attend on the first day. Nevertheless, on September 9, 1957, sixteen 6-year-olds successfully desegregated Nashville Public Schools. These trailblazers became known as the “Nashville 16.”

, Nashville Schools implemented a plan to desegregate one additional grade per year. Metro Schools would eventually fully integrate both city and county schools throughout the school district.

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Nonetheless, many school desegregation court battles continued throughout the years, and the Kelley v. Board of Education case became Tennessee’s longest-running desegregation lawsuit, finally ending in 1998.

Historical Marker Unveiled

In appreciation of the activism, heroism and impact that A.Z. Kelley contributed to the lives of so many Nashville public school students, the Metro Historical Commission dedicated a new historical marker at A.Z. Kelley Elementary School体育投注 on November 5, 2019, in honor of the late barbershop owner and change agent.

体育投注The school is located at 5834 Pettus Road in Antioch and currently serves more than 800 students.

Painted on the wall of the school gymnasium is a song about A.Z. Kelley and his fight for the dream of equality for all students. Students enrolled at A.Z. Kelley all know the words:

“A.Z. Kelley was a man who had to take a stand,

Believing that all children were the same,

To school, they all should go together as they grow,

Becoming future leaders of the land,

Now we’re here at A.Z. Kelley Elementary School,

Keeping the dream of equality alive at the green and blue.”

Further Reading

by John Egerton published in Southern Spaces.