Education was another progressive issue during this period. Many Tennesseans, especially rural ones, believed that basic education—reading, writing and simple arithmetic—was all that a farmer or laborer and his family needed.
In 1902, nearly 22 percent of Tennessee voting age men could not read the ballots, nor even sign their names.
There was no statewide curriculum or schedule in place. In rural areas of Tennessee, the school schedule was arranged around farm production. Schools were closed planting and harvesting seasons because children were needed to help at home on the farm.
Normal school terms lasted around 96 days or about four to five months. Attendance was not required. This meant that most students only attended an average of 47 days per year. In rural areas, schools usually had only one room. Teachers only taught elementary-level curriculums.
Even if a child attended school, most had to quit after elementary school since there weren’t many high schools in the state.
Read about 14-year old Cordell Hull's education in 1886.
But ideas about schooling began to change during this period. The state passed a compulsory school attendance law in 1913. Attendance by African American children went up from 49 percent in 1910 to 65 percent in 1920.
State and cities also started building high schools. In Tennessee there were only 111 high schools in 1910. By 1922 there were 533. Shelby County was one of the first counties in the state to build a high school, even hiring a prominent architect to design the high school at Cordova.
- Photograph showing students in front of one-room schoolhouse. This photo was taken in 1915 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Pi Beta Phi to Arrowmont Photographic Collection, University of Tennessee.
- Photograph entitled, “Tennessee School for the Deaf.” This photo shows residents of the school in Knoxville standing on the outside steps. This photo was created sometime between 1875 and 1925. University of Tennessee.
- Photograph showing a physical education class as the Cookeville School. This photo was created in Cookeville, Tennessee sometime between 1911 and 1930. The large group of students are shown stretching outside. Tennessee Technological University.
- Photograph showing a group of school children and their teacher. They are shown standing in front of a school. This photo was probably taken sometime between 1900 to 1910 in Davidson County, Tennessee. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
- Photograph of the first school bus in Memphis. This photo was taken sometime near the early 1900s. Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library.
Confronting the Modern Era >> Life in Tennessee >> Making Life Better >> Better Schools