Bradley Academy has Confusing History

As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bradley Academy has been located at 415 South Academy Street since 1918.

Bradley Academy has been located at 415 South Academy Street since 1918.

By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society

Even married historians Homer and Mable Pittard could not agree.  Mable reported that Samuel Black, the first teacher, came from Gallatin, and that a Jefferson area land owner donated the land for Rutherford’s first academy.  Homer wrote that Black came from Columbia, Tennessee and that the first academy location was in Murfreesboro.  Both were mistaken.

In April 1806 the U. S. Congress made funds (“land grants”) available for the development of local public schools.  To take advantage of this federal largess, the Tennessee Legislature in September 1806 authorized establishment of “Academies in the several Counties” and appointed trustees for this purpose.

The 1806 Act provided that Joseph Dixon, John R. Bedford, John Thompson Sr., William P. Anderson and Robert Smith be “constituted a body politic and corporate, to be known by the name of the trustees of the Bradley Academy, in the county of Rutherford.”  The Act empowered the trustees to raise funds and purchase a site for the academy after election of a treasurer and posting of appropriate bonds.

Obviously, the name “Bradley Academy” was determined before the 1806 act was adopted, and before any land was purchased or donated for the school.  There is no documentation to support the speculation that the academy was named for John Bradley, an early land owner along the East Fork.  (The “Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture” (Carroll Van West ed., 1998) says rather vaguely that Bradley Academy was “named for a principal.”  This also lacks record support. Land records do establish, however, that John Bradley did not at any time own the original school site and could not have been the donor.

The first Bradley Academy opened for students in December 1809, according to an announcement in the Nashville Clarion on Dec. 15, 1809: “The Bradley Academy in Rutherford County will be open for the reception of students on the 17th … The building for the use of the Academy … is erected … about 5 miles east of Jefferson … Sam’l P. Black, esq., late of Sumner county who has undertaken conduct of this establishment will devote his time and talents solely to its promotion and advantage.”

The “Annals of Rutherford County” John C. Spence, writing in 1870, places the original academy “a few hundred yards west of the present Baptist meeting house.”

Using the Clarion and Spence coordinates, the location of this first academy would be approximately at what is now

By 1836 a “substantial two-story brick house with four rooms” was built near the intersection of S.E. Broad and Mercury where the CVS Pharmacy is today across from the Discovery Center).

By 1836 a “substantial two-story brick house with four rooms” was built near the intersection of S.E. Broad and Mercury where the CVS Pharmacy is today across from the Discovery Center).

the 488 Central Valley Road address on the south bank of the East Fork west of the Lebanon pike. (This is consistent with an early plat showing “Academy Land” in this location.)

Deed records show that the John Bradley property was on the north side of the river east of the Lebanon pike. Other records indicate that Thomas Rucker lived on the school site before he moved in 1809 to a new home on the current Veterans Affairs property.  It is most likely that Rucker made part of his property available for the original school site.

The site for the new Rutherford County seat was determined in April 1812, and the original lots were laid off for Murfreesboro on the William Lytle plantation in June 1812.  Soon afterward, Lytle, Frederick Barfield, James Maney and other Murfreesboro investors were named as Bradley Academy trustees, replacing most of the original Jefferson area trustees.  The new trustees decided to move the Academy to Murfreesboro, and purchased a lot on East Main Street for this purpose.  (This second academy site is now occupied by the Episcopal Church at the corner of Main and North Academy.  The Academy Street name dates from this 1814 site.)

The “History of Rutherford County Schools” (RCRTA, 1986) states that the academy moved from its original site to Murfreesboro “by 1811.”  But Murfreesboro did not exist in 1811; the original plat was not drawn and surveyed until June 1812.  Research by the State Teachers College (STC) “Curriculum Laboratory Class” in 1930 (funded by the WPA) determined that there was a private school in the Murfree Spring area before  Murfreesboro was established, and that Robert Henderson, the county’s first Presbyterian preacher, was the teacher for this private school on “a hill near the Murfree’s Spring.”

The original Bradley Academy building fund was raised by a state-authorized lottery conducted by legislatively-

Date unknown

Date unknown

appointed “lottery commissioners.”

These commissioners were authorized “to raise by lottery, by one or more schemes and classes, the sum of five thousand dollars for the purpose of erecting buildings or purchasing a library and philosophical apparatus for the use and benefit of Bradley academy, the county academy … ” (The legislature specifically provided that lottery commissioners could buy tickets in their own lottery if no fraud was involved.)

Samuel Black came to Murfreesboro when Bradley Academy was moved and continued as the lead instructor at the Main Street location. Henderson merged his own school into the Academy and was also employed as an instructor.  It was during this period (1814-16) that the young James K. Polk attended Bradley.  Several sources indicate that Henderson was responsible for Polk’s enrollment as a result of earlier contact while both lived in Columbia, Maury County.

But things didn’t go well for the Academy on Main Street in Murfreesboro, and by about 1818 Black had returned to the original East Fork location to start his own academy that he named Pebble Hill Academy.  (Black eventually bought the academy property from Thomas Rucker in 1829.)  In 1822 Henderson also left Bradley and established Hopewell Academy a few miles north of Murfreesboro.  Bradley closed when Henderson left and the Main Street structures were used for other purposes.

Another “Bradley Academy” was opened in 1826 “a fiew hundred yards east of the Murfree Spring…(in a) one-story brick house … pleasantly situated in a shady grove,” according to the Spence account.  “This house was called Bradley Academy,” with Benjamin Barlow serving as instructor, but it soon “commenced dwindling and finally neglected and discontinued as an academy.”

In an account seemingly at odds with the Spence writing, Carlton Sims in 1947 wrote that the Bradley trustees retained Barlow in 1834 as the “superintendent” of Bradley Academy.  These two accounts could be reconciled if we assume Barlow was acting apart from the trustees initially, but was later hired when the last effort was made to reestablish the state-chartered academy.

A more accurate account, however, based on deed records, establishes that in 1830 Frank Burton donated approximately two acres to the Bradley trustees. An adjacent tract was purchased to complete the new campus on South Academy Street.  Perhaps the Barlow-led school was on this property and Spence and Sims were describing the same efforts to revive the Academy following the 1830 gift.

In 1838 a two-story brick structure with four rooms was built on the South Academy site, according to the Spence account, and M. Merrell was employed “to take charge of the new institution.”  (Homer Pittard describes a log structure.)  Perhaps in part because lotteries had been prohibited by the Legislature in 1835 due to rampant fraud and abuse, this last version of Bradley Academy survived for just three years.

Although the historic marker on South Broad Street says that Bradley Academy “merged with Union University in 1848,” Union University actually took possession of the Bradley Academy building in 1841.  The Union University takeover in the 1840s marked the end of Bradley Academy and the dissolution of its board of trustees.  Most of the campus property was sold by trustee deed in 1842.

In need of substantially larger facilities, Union University purchased its Main Street campus (18 acres) from Matthias Murphree in 1848.  Three years later the University moved to its new location and thereafter used the South Academy building for overflow activity and storage.  During the Civil War the building was stripped and vandalized and made “a perfect waste.”

Following the war, the dilapidated building was turned over to the Common School, a free school predecessor to the local public school system. (Academy students were expected to pay tuition.)  In 1884 local authorities established a school exclusively for blacks in the South Academy Street building and named it “Bradley School,” dropping the “academy” term.  In 1918 the old structure was demolished and a new Bradley School building was constructed.

The upper class students were moved from Bradley School to the new Holloway High School in 1928, and the 1918 building was vacated in 1955 when the new Bradley Elementary School was opened on Mercury Drive.  The elementary school building was expanded in 2000 with the addition of the Bradley Arts and Communication Center.

The entire school complex on Mercury Drive has recently been designated “Bradley Academy.”  Current school principal Chad Fletcher suggests that the recent renaming may help to establish a useful “link with the past.”

The 1918 Bradley School structure on South Academy, which now houses the local black history museum, has also been renamed “Bradley Academy” memorializing the site’s brief association (1830-42) with Rutherford’s first state-affiliated academy.

Greg Tucker can be reached at

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