The James E. Ward Agricultural Center was abuzz Saturday night, May 31, with more than 200 former students and teachers of the Wilson County Training School in attendance to celebrate, reunite and reminisce and to hear Lebanon native and Wilson County Training School graduate, Memphis Mayor AC Wharton Jr., the keynote speaker at the event titled "An Evening To Remember."
Over 90 years ago Wilson County officials saw a need to raise the educational level of African Americans within the community. Thus, the Wilson County Training School was born.
The Wilson County Training School for African American students, later referred to as Wilson County High School, operated from 1923 to 1969 on Market Street and included both an elementary school and high school. The high school was demolished in 2000 and the elementary school is now home to the Market Street Community Center.
But for almost 50 years it served its students well thanks to its principals and teachers.
Spence Talley, who along with the Reunion Committee, planned the evening of celebration, remarked that "all the principals including Harrison Jarrett, Albert Moore, Joe Thomas, James Bryant and Carlos Bruce, as well as Professors Campbell, Inman and Woodson dared to meet a challenge by not making the minimum the maximum.
They taught courses beyond the minimum requirements prescribed by the state which caused our students to become well-rounded, responsible citizens with a strong belief that education with Christian and moral principles would be the key to freedom and equality for African Americans in this country."
A fact that was abundantly clear as class by class, students rose when called upon to represent those who had served in the military and those who had gone on to earn bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees.
Wharton was one of those called upon during the evening to share his memories. In a speech filled with both laugh out loud moments as well as poignant memories of a different time, he reminded those in attendance that although "they didn't have much, they did a heck of a lot with what they did have," adding, “it isn't what you have, but it's what you do with what you have."
And while the students didn't have all the trappings of today's students, what they did have were teachers and parents determined to see to it that they had the very best education.
Wharton noted that it was because of his teachers, including Mrs. Hattie Bryant and Mrs. Nina Palmer Gragg, that he became a man who not only wanted to learn but wanted to strive for more.
After graduating from Wilson County Training School, Wharton, went on to obtain a Political Science degree from Tennessee State University and a law degree from University of Mississippi Law School where he was one of the first African American students to serve on the Moot Court Board and the first to serve on the Judicial Council. Later, he became the University's first African American Professor of Law.
An attorney by trade, Wharton became a successful criminal defense attorney, practicing law with his wife Ruby Wharton in their Memphis-based law firm. He also later served as the Shelby County Public Defender. Prior to being elected Mayor of Memphis, he served as the Mayor of Shelby County and was the first African-American ever elected to that office.
Wharton relayed that he and his fellow classmates had been blessed to have "picked apples when someone else shook the tree" reminding them that the alumni of the Wilson County Training School were now the ones responsible for shaking the tree for future generations.
The Committee members – Spence Talley, Barbara Allen, Arthur Crudup, Jimmie Hill, Pauline Holmes, Carlene Jenkins, Rovene Jennings, Carolyn Rhone, Ruth Wharton and James Woods – hope that the reunion will become an annual event bringing the community together to not only preserve the rich heritage of the school but also to honor its many graduates, who've gone on to accomplish so much in Wilson County and beyond.