Lost Memphis: Messick High School

photo courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

One of the oldest — if not the oldest — schools built in Shelby County, Messick High School held its first classes way back in 1909. Over the years, the mighty Panthers trounced teams throughout the region, and kids came to regard the old red-brick building at the corner of Spottswood and Greer as a home away from home.

But the building decayed, the school district changed, and in the early 1980s, the condemned main buildings fell to the bulldozers. I'd sure like to know what happened to the fine capstone shown here; it would have looked magnificent on the Lauderdale Mansion lawn. Although some of the other buildings have been converted for other purposes by the Board of Education, Messick's days as a regular high school are long gone.

The school's namesake was an interesting lady indeed. Born here on a farm in 1876, Elizabeth Messick became the very first person to attend the newly opened University of Chicago. I know that sounds hard to believe, but that's what she said. After high school, she somehow learned about the new university John D. Rockefeller was building on the site of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition (one of the very first world's fairs), and she took a train to the Windy City to see if she could enroll there.

That was quite an undertaking when you consider that not many women dared to go to college in those days. But Elizabeth was accepted, and I presume she graduated, for she returned to Memphs, where she eventually became superintendent of schools from 1904 to 1908. And since Messick was being constructed the year she retired, they decided to name the school after her.

I found an old newspaper clipping, by the way, that says that some years later she married Elmer F. Houk, the city editor of The Commercial Appeal. When he died in 1919, she went to live in the Nineteenth Century Club on Union, now sitting empty and waiting for demolition or development (I'm hoping for the latter, of course).


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Famed Memphis trivia expert Vance Lauderdale answers reader questions weekly here on his blog!

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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