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In segregated Memphis, radio DJs drove Black children with disabilities to this Uptown school

By Tamara Williamson, High Ground News

In the early-to-mid 20th century, a Memphis school educated children who otherwise could have slipped through the cracks. Located at 227 Keel Avenue in the neighborhood now known as Uptown, the school furthered two unique endeavors for students. Though the building is now demolished, its legacy lives on as the first school in Memphis for African-American students with disabilities.

In 1918, an open-air school for children with tuberculosis, which was graced with the simple name of The Open Air School, opened with 25 students at the southeast corner of Fourth Street and Keel Avenue.

“At that time, it was thought that students who were susceptible to tuberculosis should be treated with fresh air and a good diet,” wrote Peggy Boyce Jemison in Greenlaw Rediscovered, published in 1979.

Such open-air schools popped up around the country, but the Uptown-based school was the only one in Tennessee.

In 1923, the school received a major upgrade with financial support from the Lions Club of Memphis. As a result, the school was then known as the Lions Open Air School. By 1938, the school had 120 students. The Lions Open Air School closed in 1943.

The building gained new life in 1955. Renamed The Keel Avenue School, the facility addressed the educational needs of African-American children with disabilities. The first school in Memphis for children with disabilities was the Shrine School, opened in 1945, but because of segregation laws, the school was off limits to African-American children with disabilities. Alma Booth, a teacher at Hamilton School with a degree in special education from Columbia University, was asked to join Keel Avenue as the principal.

Rutha Pegues, a now-retired special education teacher, taught at Keel for several years.

“Special ed was a new field at the time,” Pegues said. “Before Keel came along, they didn’t have a Shrine [school] for black children. So many physically handicapped Black kids did not go [to school] anywhere.”

WDIA, the nation’s first all-Black radio station, had a key role in Keel Avenue School’s operations. The radio station held popular concerts, the Goodwill and Starlite Revues, which created the charitable Goodwill Fund. (The fund still exists today.)

Using Goodwill funds, the radio station purchased two buses to transport the Keel Avenue School students to and from the school. J.B. Brooks, the station’s engineer, and Theo “Bless My Bones” Wade, one of the station’s DJs, drove the Goodwill Buses.

According to Louis Cantor’s history of WDIA in his book, Wheelin’ on Beale, “The buses made twenty trips weekly — about 700 a year — covering over 25,000 miles annually.”

Mark Stansbury, a WDIA DJ who has worked at WDIA for 60 years, remembers the Keel Avenue days.

Burt Ferguson of WDIA stands with a model of the Keel Avenue school made by its students. (Mark Stansbury/Memphis World)

“Brother Wade was on the air at four in the morning then would leave the station, pick up the kids, and take them to Keel,” he said.

Stansbury also was witness to the legacy of the school. “For years afterward, I ran into people who attended Keel, and they said they were grateful to have the opportunity to go there.”

Burt Ferguson, WDIA’s general manager, was deeply involved in school activities and would occasionally ride the Goodwill Bus with the students. “Mr. Ferguson wanted to give back to the community,” said Stansbury.

The goings-on at Keel Avenue were reported in the Memphis World, a black newspaper whose creation, like that of Keel Avenue School, stemmed from the omission of African-American experiences in mainstream Memphis outlets. The newspaper documented the school’s fashion show fundraisers, lectures on the latest updates in the fight for polio by healthcare professionals, and a performance by the Memphis Sinfonietta (an early incarnation of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra).

The Keel Avenue School merged with the Shrine School in 1969, and the building at Fourth and Keel that housed innovative and beneficial education efforts for over 50 years closed.

Booth went on to work for the Division of Special Education of Memphis City Schools, and the building remained empty for years.

According to Jemison and Greenlaw Rediscovered, by the late 1970s the North Memphis Action Agency occupied the building. The publicly-funded organization ran a daycare and provided transportation to the elderly and people with disabilities. The Memphis Public Library also operated a branch on the second floor of the building.

In 1983, a Commercial Appeal article reported that the Memphis Board of Education approved a 15-year lease for Community Development North, a social service organization, to rehab the building in order to create housing for seniors. The building was eventually demolished, and how far the redevelopment plan advanced is unclear.

Regardless, the building that once lived at the corner of Fourth Street and Keel Avenue has a compelling story that cannot be diminished by its demolition.

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