Robert E. Clay, a pioneer of rural education for African Americans in Tennessee, helped to build hundreds of rural, county, and city schools. Clay was born on June 25, 1875, in Bristol, Virginia, to Harry and Frances Clay. He married Obelia M. Goins, and the couple had one son, Hairston, who settled in Bristol, Tennessee.
Clay began his career as a disciple of Booker T. Washington. He worked diligently in Washington's National Negro Business League until Washington's death in 1915. In 1917 Clay became the Julius Rosenwald Fund's Negro agent for Tennessee. He worked as a Rosenwald agent, building schools and developing educational programs for African Americans until 1937, when the Rosenwald Fund closed its southern office. Clay later worked as a developer of African American education for the State Department of Education.
As a Rosenwald agent, Clay held public meetings to persuade European Americans and African Americans to support the construction of local school houses. He convinced reluctant whites to attend the Rosenwald meetings and courses, offering them free Rosenwald school plans to build their own schools. His diplomatic methods gained the confidence of local elites, and Clay erected Rosenwald schools in racially tense counties like Haywood and Tipton, as well as in divided cities like Kingsport.
Before his retirement in 1955 Clay became a notable figure at Tennessee A&I State College, where he had received his degree in 1932. Like Washington, Clay believed in educating the whole person and, accordingly, headed Sunday school classes on the campus almost until his death. The students found him amiable and eager to give wise counsel and guidance. “Daddy Clay,” as they affectionately called him, enlisted faculty members and Greek-letter organizations to direct the Sunday school lessons in the university's auditorium. In November 1949 President Walter S. Davis proclaimed the Robert E. Clay Sunday School, which operated under the motto, “God first, others second, and myself last.”
Robert E. Clay died on June 23, 1961. He was honored with a memorial service on the Tennessee State University campus on June 27. In 1968 the new education building was named R. E. Clay Hall.
Mary S. Hoffschwelle, Rebuilding the Rural Southern Community: Reformers, Schools, and Homes in Tennessee, 1914-1929 (1998)