School Days




Dear Vance: Whatever happened to the old Lauderdale School? I can't find it listed in the phone book. Did they tear it down?

— J.W., Memphis

Dear J.W.: Not only did they tear the fine school down, they rebuilt it, changed the name, changed the name back to Lauderdale, and then changed the name again. It's all very confusing and — I won't mince words here — a slap in the face to the Lauderdales, who have done so many great things for our city.

At the moment, I can't recall just what those great things are, but I'm pretty sure we kept a list around the house somewhere, scrawled on an old grocery sack.

At any rate, in 1902, my great-grandfather donated one of the family's polo fields to the city so they could build a new elementary school that would serve the neighborhood that had sprung up along Lauderdale Street in South Memphis. With a capacity for some 900 students, it was one of the largest schools in the city. I couldn't seem to locate any decent photos of the building itself, but I assure you it was a handsome, red-brick edifice, with dozens of classrooms, a nice gymnasium, and a spacious auditorium. I did manage to find several photos of Lauderdale's early classes, and I thought I'd include one here, just to show what noble-looking, intelligent, well-dressed children attended this wonderful center for learning. Why, just look at their happy faces and expensive clothes and — okay, I have to admit that these sad-looking children look like impoverished, starving urchins from a Charles Dickens' novel. Perhaps they didn't get the memo that they were supposed to wear their very best duds for school-pictures day.

At any rate, for decades Lauderdale School stood as a neighborhood landmark at the corner of Lauderdale and Walker. Oh, how my heart would beat with pride whenever I passed it in the limousine. Not that I ever went there, of course. Only the finest reform schools in Europe were good enough for me.

But over the years, the old school began to decline. Dreadful fires in other cities pointed out the dangers of this style of architecture, with its flammable varnished-wood interiors, narrow stairs, high windows and just about every fire-code violation you could think of. So in the early 1980s city officials demolished the old building and constructed a new school just to the north.

Years before this happened, however, the school board did something rather odd. The neighborhood around South Lauderdale had changed, so in the 1960s the city officials decided that the all-white Lauderdale School would be "a school for Negroes," as the Memphis Press-Scimitar put it. This was in the days before desegregation, you understand. And to avoid confusion with the old school, the new place would be called Walker Elementary School.

This always baffled me, because there was already a Walker School, an elementary school in southwest Memphis that opened in 1959. But they never consulted the Lauderdales about this matter, so in the early 1960s — I could look up the exact date, but the whole situation is too distressing — Lauderdale School became Walker School.

But only for a few years. In 1969, the school's name was changed back to Lauderdale. Perhaps because somebody finally figured out there was already a Walker School, or — and this is the more likely reason, but I can't be sure — that other school's neighborhood was incorporated into the city limits, and one of those names had to go.

So the Lauderdale School signs went back up, this time on the newer buildings. But the name has recently been changed again. Drive by today, and you'll see the complex of white concrete buildings has been named the Ida B. Wells Academy.

I can't make sense of it. I just wish I had some of the old Lauderdale banners like the one shown in the photograph. My, they would look grand flying from the flagpoles in the front yard of the mansion.

Movie Memories

Dear Vance: Growing up in Memphis in the 1950s, I have fond remembrances of several places and wish you could help me with them. One is the Rosewood Theater. Do you recall where that was?. — J.V., Booneville, MS

Dear J.V.: It's a bit unsettling that two questions this month deal with Lauderdale Street. If this keeps up, I may have to crank up the voltage on the electric fence surrounding the Lauderdale Mansion. Just as soon as I pay the bills and get MLGW to turn the power back on at my residence, of course.

I had never heard of the Rosewood Theater and thought you were confusing it with the old Rosemary Theater at Jackson and Watkins. But then I decided I would spend ten minutes looking through old city directories, just in case. It was the least I could do, and I really mean that — the least.

Much to my surprise, I discovered that Memphis indeed had a Rosewood Theater, which began showing movies in 1951 at 1905 South Lauderdale. There's a halfway interesting story behind its development. If you look through old phone books, as I did, you'll see that in the late 1940s no commercial establishments stood at the intersection of Lauderdale and Rosewood. Then, in 1951, various businesses are listed here, four of them named Rosewood: the theater, the Rosewood Barber Shop, the Rosewood Beauty Shop, and the Rosewood Grille.

Behind all these ventures was an enterprising businessman named Ben Bass. I confess I don't know much about this fellow, but he constructed a pair of handsome brick buildings on both sides of Lauderdale, just south of Rosewood. The building on the east, which still carries a big stone across the top inscribed "Bass Building 1950" was home to a Big Star grocery, M&R Department Store, Longview Self-Service Laundry, Teddy's Hardware, and the aforementioned Rosewood Pharmacy and Rosewood Barber Shop.

Across the street, the other building housed the Rosewood Theater, along with Merritt's Bakery and Arthur Wesche's Restaurant. I managed to turn up an old newspaper ad (right) from July 1959 that showed what was playing that month at the Rosewood: the features House on Haunted Hill and A Day for a Hanging (gee, what cheerful fare!), along with a Captain America serial and "2 funny cartoons." All this for a quarter, if that much.

For reasons I don't know, the Rosewood stayed in business for less than a dozen years. It closed in 1962, and the big auditorium became Bennett's Club Rosewood. The building is still standing, though considerably altered outside, and these days is home to Longview Community Holiness Church (above).

 

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