MURFREESBORO — MTSU departments and personnel will be recognized later this month for the university’s support in preserving and reviving the building that now houses Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center.
This year’s annual Willie McGowan Banquet in support of the museum will celebrate a special milestone in the efforts of many to preserve the city’s first school for African-American students.
With a theme of “Honoring the Legacy of Our Unsung Heroes,” this year’s banquet is spotlighting the 20th anniversary of the successful movement to preserve and restore a building that embodies the foundation of education in the city of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County.
“It’s important that we honor those who have done so much to preserve Bradley’s legacy for future generations,” said MTSU’s Dr. Gloria Bonner, a longtime Bradley supporter who was keynote speaker at the 2015 banquet. “This museum is truly a community treasure and we invite the community to join us in this celebration.”
Among honorees: MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation represented by Dr. Carroll Van West, center director at state historian for Tennessee, and Caneta Hankins, retired assistant director for the center; and the MTSU Department of History, represented by Dr. James Beeby, chair, and Dr. Brenden Martin, history professor.
Tickets are on sale now for the annual event, which will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 26, at the James Union Building at Middle Tennessee State University. The event will feature dinner, a keynote speaker and special presentations to select Bradley supporters.
Tickets are $40 for adults over age 18 and $20 for all others. A table of eight can be reserved for $300. The deadline to purchase tickets is March 18.
Tickets can be purchased by cash or by check in advance at the museum, 415 S. Academy St., during the normal operating hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For tickets or donations, make checks payable to the City of Murfreesboro/Friends of Bradley Academy Museum. For more information, call 615-962-8773.
A pre-celebration wine and cheese event will held from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, March 25, at the museum. The free event will feature jazz music, local artists’ displays, a video presentation about the museum and self-guided tours.
Keynote speaker for the March 26 banquet is James Oscar Simmons of Florida. A Rutherford County native and graduate of the Holloway High School Class of 1953, Simmons is the retired president and founder of the Pinellas County Urban League in St. Petersburg, Florida, a position he held for almost three decades.
In recent years, he has also been instrumental in opening a number of charter schools in Florida to help at-risk youth earn their high school diplomas.
Other banquet honorees include the Rebecca Carney Temple No. 798 and the E.A. Davis Elks Lodge No. 1138; Shacklett Photography represented by Bill Shacklett and Gloria Shacklett Christy; and the Christy Houston Foundation represented by Bob Mifflin.
The original Bradley Academy was a log structure built in 1809 on donated land from the Murfree family near the Stones River. President James K. Polk was the most notable student at the private school, which relocated to South Academy by the 1830s and later served as a hospital site during the smallpox epidemic of 1836 and later during the Civil War. It closed in 1848 before reopening in 1884 as a school for black students, with the current two-story brick structure built in 1917-1918 featuring eight classrooms, running water and electricity.
The school closed again in 1955 in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and after being used for office space and storage for a time, fell into disrepair and faced demolition. That’s when the late Willie McGowan, known as the “Father of the Bradley Academy Historical Association,” spearheaded a movement by former students, teachers and community supporters to restore the abandoned building.
Former Bradley board member Fred Beneby, a retiree now living in south Florida, was among those instrumental in helping establish the nonprofit BAHA, which was chartered to help the building land a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, a feat achieved in 1990 with the help of MTSU Center for Historic Preservation and Department of History. By 1996, with the help of federal grants facilitated by then Congressman Bart Gordon of Murfreesboro, Bradley was restored.
McGowan’s grandson, Jason R. McGowan, is proud of his grandfather’s legacy and wants to do everything he can to increase awareness about the building’s importance as a black history treasure and expand its use as a place for community events and educational activities.
“Bradley is much more than a building,” McGowan said. “It’s a vital link to our history to which younger generations must be exposed.”
The building now serves as a cultural museum with permanent historical exhibits, a restored classroom, office space and meeting space for community events. The city of Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation Department has taken over day-to-day operations of the facility.
City Councilman Ron Washington led the effort to move Bradley’s operations beneath the Parks and Recreation Department umbrella, a transition he felt was critical to maintain the museum’s long-term viability.
“Bradley is deeply special to me and many others in this community,” Washington said. “The City’s support of the museum’s operations will only boost its presence and profile as a historical jewel in this region.”
For more information about Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center, visit www.murfreesborotn.gov/parks or call 615-962-8773.