The Keeper of the Churchwell Legacy: Journalism and Education in Nashville

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Picture waking up for your job, getting ready, your wife sending you off with love and children still fast asleep. You are up earlier than all of your counterparts because your deadline is due. Yet your journey to the office is longer and more tedious because you do not have an actual desk in the office. See, it is 1950 and you are the first African American journalist at the Nashville Banner. A local newspaper, that was still segregated within their physical space, values and storylines. Five years later, he would receive a desk in the office and go on to cover history making news, from the election of Judge A. A. Birch, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce allowing African-Americans members (in 1964), interviewing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Marian Anderson’s concert to the integration of Nashville. Mr. Churchwell blazed a trail for journalism in Nashville, despite the odds stacked against him.

As a writer myself, it hit a little different to hear about Mr. Churchwell’s story as I sat down and chatted with his son, Robert Churchwell, Jr. He is the family historian and keeper of the Churchwell legacy. There is a sense of pride he had when talking about his father and mother, how they nurtured an incredible family with children who went on to make significant impacts in this city and beyond. From esteemed doctors to educators, as Robert Churchwell, Jr. shared “there was a high bar set by my parents so striving to be the best was innately within us all.”

Within the Churchwell family, pursuing things with excellence was a part of their DNA, from his dad all the way down to him and his siblings, they have and are still leaving a mark on this city.

What has your father’s legacy meant to you?

Well, it has always been a high bar. I am standing on the shoulders of greatness as I did not have to look far for my hero. I am grateful and blessed to have his name. 

For him, being the first was not always easy and certainly not during the 1950’s. The inspiration was that you never gave up and with God’s help you can persevere to do what you need to do, because you have been called to do it. The day before he crossed over, I went to visit him in hospice. He had several friends from his career in visiting with him. I listened to their conversation and when they left, my Dad said, “Son that is part of your legacy.” Then he said to me, “what will be your legacy?” In that moment, those words really struck and gave me an additional push to pursue excellence. It really charged me to progress forward in the area of education.

I was the first band director at Whites Creek High School and ended as a principal. I never felt his legacy was a burden but a great opportunity. Education was stressed and that you cannot make it without it. Both of my parents supported all 5 of us. Even now, with both of them gone, that same charge resonates with me and my siblings. 

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How was he able to balance work, racial injustice and his personal self-care during this time?

Having to oversee a squadron of men in the army during WWII, racism was not a new animal to him, nor the pressure of being the first. He fought for his country, then came home on a train with other black soldiers right behind the engine, where all the soot was flying in their face. All those things would play on your psyche.

But, my Dad had a cheerleader in my Mom. Every time he would have a down moment, she would remind him of Psalm 121 – “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.” He was also a Sunday School teacher at Seay Hubbard United Methodist Church. We were always in activities from sports, piano, dancing classes, high school band, etc. So there were always outlets that he was able to experience which provided balance for him. But remember, his main cheerleader was always my Mom. 

What would your dad say to a young journalist/writer in this day and age?

Strive to be the best, make sure your sources are credible and your writing reflects the story you are trying to put together. Remember, the same racial barriers experienced in the 1950’s are still there, just in different forms and the spirit of overcoming should still be present. Make sure that you love what you are doing. He would say, “It’s always good to get to the top but before you get there you have to fall down a little.”

You were a principal and now the community director at the Robert Churchwell Magnet School (named after your Dad). What does that mean to you?

It was quite an honor for the board of education to name the school after Dad. The school was originally named after Wharton, who was a colonel in the confederate army. Meaning for many years, African American children were going to a school named after a man who cared nothing about their educational journey. My father was a man who believed in education and that it was a pathway to a greater future. So, being able to continue his legacy is a blessing. 

The fact that we are a museum school and incorporate the arts within our building and curriculum is also homage to my Dad. It is proven that the arts are a great way to learn the foundation of education – reading, writing and math and my father loved the arts. He was actually friends with Aaron Douglas (the muralist) and I remember meeting him when he lived on Fisk’s campus.  

Talk about a rich and fulfilled life through a man who charted a path that would have been hard for others. 

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