Each month, Curator’s Corner welcomes a Tennessee State Museum curator to offer insight and interpretation on Museum artifacts and their connection to Tennessee history.
By Miranda Fraley Rhodes, Ph.D.
“I have just gotten home from a thirty-eight days’ trip. The work has increased so that it takes nearly all my time on the road. I have been able to work with the County Supervisors, the Smith Hughes workers, the Principals of the County Training Schools and to adjust many matters in education pertaining to the Negro schools as well as start many campaigns for the building of new Rosenwald Schools” – Robert E. Clay, Rosenwald School Agent for Tennessee, December 22, 1927.
For decades, Robert E. Clay was a leader in efforts to improve public education for Black students in Tennessee. From his positions with the Tennessee Department of Education, he served as an essential link between Black communities and white officials at state and local levels.
Clay related some of the history of his remarkable career to student Lucine Monon Pride in an interview for her thesis “Life and Works of Robert Edward Clay,” produced in 1945 as part of the coursework for her bachelor’s degree at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (Tennessee A & I), now Tennessee State University. According to Pride, Clay, born in 1875, was originally from Bristol. As a child, he had to leave school to work to support himself and his family. Despite this, he became a successful business owner and graduated from Bristol Normal Institute, associated with Knoxville College, by 1905.
In 1912, Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute, partnered with philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Robuck & Co. to create a matching grant program for constructing modern school buildings for Black students in the segregated South. Clay’s leadership qualities and interest in education were recognized by S.L. Smith, who worked in the Tennessee Department of Education. In June 1918, Smith wrote to Clinton Calloway at Tuskegee proposing that Clay serve as an agent for this program in Tennessee, with part of his salary to be paid by the building program and part to be paid by the state.
Clay spent many years serving as the Rosenwald School Agent for Tennessee. His work was crucial to the success of the Rosenwald School program in the state. Historian Mary S. Hoffschwelle discusses how Clay functioned as a key intermediary between Black community members and white officials in state and local governments. He traveled extensively throughout the state organizing campaigns to raise funds for Rosenwald School projects, which typically required matching contributions from Black communities as well as state or local school systems. The contributions made by community members were separate from and in addition to the taxes they paid to support public schools.
Eclipse school desk, Tennessee State Museum Collection (88.137.5)
As a Black official with the Tennessee Department of Education, Clay regularly interacted with Black community members, teachers, and principals and with white elected officials. His role was complex and fraught with tension. He often faced the task of persuading local officials and white businessmen to support school improvements for Black students within the contexts of a racially segregated and unequal school system. For example, in 1927, Clay described a meeting with a local white leader concerning a school building project that reflected Clay’s efforts to negotiate between white officials and Black community members. He wrote, “We agreed on a two-teacher school, we also agreed on the fact that nothing would be said about our conference until I came back in January and outlined to the colored people just what should be done.” Clay stated that “I frankly admit that this is one of the most delicate situations that I have had to handle….”
Clay’s success as an advocate for Black education is reflected in many ways. More than 300 schools for Black students were constructed in Tennessee in partnership with the Rosenwald Fund. When this program and the Rosenwald Fund’s support for his position’s salary ended, the Tennessee Department of Education continued to employ Clay as a State Building Developer. Significantly, Black communities persisted in contributing resources for public school improvements even after the Rosenwald program ended. As reflected in his reports at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, Clay’s work in this position extended far beyond physical buildings as he continued to fight for better educational opportunities for Black students.
Booklet, 1926, Tennessee State Museum Collection (2009.56.51)
Clay also served as an official in the National Youth Administration, a federal New Deal program during the Great Depression, that employed young people in projects that improved school buildings, provided support for work study opportunities and other programs. He organized professional development courses for Black educators at Tennessee A&I and was a faith leader at the university, known for creating and directing a student Sunday School program for many years.
According to Pride, Clay explained that “there is no limit to the good that one can do providing he does not care who get[s] the credit.” Clay’s instrumental roles in promoting Black education in communities throughout the state provided students, teachers, and school administrators with much needed resources and support, and his work remains as an inspiring example of public service.
Miranda Fraley-Rhodes, Ph.D. is the Assistant Chief Curator of the Tennessee State Museum
Header image: Bells Consolidated Rosenwald School, located in Crockett County, August 1926, courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives
Clay, R. E. Multiple Reports. Folders 44 to 47, Box 99, Series IX, Record Group 273, Tennessee Department of Education Records, 1874-1987, Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Clay, R.E. to P.L. Harned, Special Report, dated December 22, 1927. Folder 24, Box 35, Series I, Record Group 92, Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner’s Records, 1913-1970, Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Hoffschwelle, Mary S. Rebuilding the Rural Southern Community: Reformers, Schools, and Homes in Tennessee, 1900-1930. University of Tennessee Press, 1998.
Hoffschwelle, Mary S. The Rosenwald Schools of the American South. University Press of Florida, 2006.
Lovett, Bobby L. “Robert E. Clay.” Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Edited by Carroll Van West. Tennessee Historical Society, 2018. http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/robert-e-clay/
Pride, Lucine Monon. “Life and Works of Robert Edward Clay.” Tennessee A&I State College, 1945.
Smith, S.L. to Clinton Calloway, June 27, 1918. Clinton J. Calloway Papers, Tuskegee University Archives.