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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Elizabeth Messick and Messick High School

Posted By on Tue, Oct 20, 2009 at 11:40 AM

MessickDemolition.jpg
This is a depressing scene, isn't it, showing the demolition of once-proud Messick High School. I wonder what happened to that big block of stone? It would have looked very fine in the Lauderdale Mansion courtyard, even all chipped up.

One of the oldest — if not the oldest — schools built in Shelby County (the folks at Central and Tech will argue forever about that honor), Messick first held classes back in 1909. Over the years, the mighty Panthers trounced teams throughout the city, and kids came to regard the old red-brick building at the corner of Spottswood and Greer as a home away from home. But the buildings decayed, the school district changed, and in the early 1980s the condemned buildings fell to the bulldozer. Although some of the campus sites remain, it's not a typical high school anymore. These days the city school system calls it the Memphis Adult Education Center, and you can enroll for vo-tech courses and also earn a GED, among other things.

The old school's namesake was an interesting person indeed. Born here on a farm in 1876, Elizabeth Messick became the very first person to attend the University of Chicago. That seems hard to believe, but it's what she always told everyone. After high school, you see, it seems she somehow learned about the university that John D. Rockefeller —¬†yes, that guy — was building next door to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (one of this country's very first world's fairs) and she took a train up to the Windy City to see if she could enroll there. Quite an undertaking when you understand that not many women dared to go to college at all in those days.

But Elizabeth was accepted, and graduated, and then she returned to Memphis, where she was eventually named superintendent of schools from 1904 to 1908. Now, if you ask me, serving just four years isn't a long enough time to get your name on a brand-new school building, but nobody did ask me how I felt about it, and good gosh since Messick was built right after she retired, I guess they had to name it after somebody.

I found an old newspaper clipping, by the way, that says that some years later she married Elmer E. Houk, the city editor of The Commercial Appeal. When he died in 1919, she went to live in the Nineteenth Century Club on Union. She died in 1951 at the age of 77 and is buried with her husband in Elmwood.

PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

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