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Early History

The former name of Kortrecht High School and the one by which it was popularly known in the 1890s was Clay Street School.  Every man, woman, and child in the city of Memphis knew the school by that name, and the majority of the earliest black pupils attended that school.  The name of Clay was one to conjure with in the early days of Memphis.  Many of the boys that were born just before the Civil War and just after that internecine struggle were christened either Clay or Henry Clay in honor of that distinguished American orator, statesman, and patriot, Henry Clay of Kentucky.  The City of Memphis named three of her parallel streets in honor of the “Great American Trio of Statesmen” – Calhoun, Webster, and Clay.  Thus the name of Clay Street School arose from the fact that it was located on Clay Street (later named St. Paul Avenue).  In the late 1880s or early 1890s, the official name of the school at headquarters became Kortrecht. That name endured until the autumn of 1926, when the iconic school was rechristened as BOOKER T. WASHINGTON HIGH SCHOOL.

First Building – 1800s

Its First Principal, J.H. BARNUM

The first recorded Memphis black “brick” public school was Clay Street School, founded in 1873. The first black principal of Clay Street School was J.H. BARNUM, who later became the first black to become the Superintendent of “Colored” Schools.  Black citizens were successful in getting the entire school staffed with only black teachers.  But it was not until 1891 that the first class graduated from a black public high school.  Clay Street School was renamed Kortrecht High School in 1891.

Its Second Principal, BENJAMIN K. SAMPSON

PROFESSOR BENJAMIN KELLOGG SAMPSON (also named the Superintendent of Colored Schools), was a native of North Carolina and enjoyed all the advantages that wealthy parentage could bestow.  Sampson graduated from Oberlin College, an institution that became famous for admitting and educating blacks when such a thing was unheard of in the South.  After teaching at the collegiate level in the North for a while, Sampson heeded the Macedonian call of the Reconstruction-Era Deep South, where blacks in many ways had yet to be truly emancipated.  He first relocated to Mississippi, but shortly thereafter, he moved to the city of Memphis in 1875. Being an Oberlin College alumnus and an experienced educator, it seemed inevitable that he would become the principal of Clay Street School.  In that post, Sampson  took the helm as proverbial superintendent of the black educational system in Memphis, which at that time could only develop parallel to and completely separate from the whites-only public school system of Memphis.

Professor Sampson was a man of imposing presence.  As an orator, he was almost unparalleled.  He was famous for his eloquence, inspiration, and grandeur when speaking before the admiring supporters of the black community and beyond.  He was the principal orator on the occasion of General Ulysses S. Grant’s visit to the city of Memphis in the year 1880, just a few years after Grant had left the White House.  On that historic occasion, Sampson delivered a remarkable speech welcoming General Grant in the old Beale Street Baptist Church.  Sampson’s voice reverberated throughout the church in heavy bass tones and exuded a confidence before the former President that inspired black of all ages and educational levels to strive for equality of the races.  Benjamin Sampson went on to serve as principal of Clay Street School for seventeen years before stepping down in 1892.  He was a ground-breaking force for the education of black people in Memphis and throughout the South.

Its Third Principal, GREEN P. HAMILTON

GREEN P. HAMILTON became the third African-American principal of the Clay Street School, which by then had come to be known as Kortrecht High School. Born in Memphis in 1867, Hamilton was one of the city’s pioneer black educators.  He first affiliated with the Memphis school system in 1884 and became principal of Kortrecht in 1892.  During his tenure, he organized the first African-American high school band in Memphis around 1900.  He was a wonderful musician, able to play nearly all of the string, reed, and brass instruments of his day.  Professor Hamilton was passionate about the progress of his race and was one of the first African-American writers in Memphis to collect and publish historical information on citizens of color.  Because his appointment coincided with the school’s official name change to BOOKER T. WASHINGTON HIGH SCHOOL, Hamilton was dubbed the “first” principal of BTW, even though others preceded him. Besides being an educator, Hamilton was also a preacher and a businessman.  He authored two books:  The Bright Side of Memphis (1908) and Beacon Lights of the Race (1911).  Hamilton Elementary, Hamilton Junior High and Hamilton High School in Memphis are named in his honor.


In the first year under its new moniker, Booker T. Washington High School was nearly filled to capacity with black students.  Its registered enrollment was approximately 1,200 students, with a mere 31 teachers on the faculty.

Note:  The above facts were taken from various sources after exhaustive research of early black education in Memphis.