The Tennessee Vocational School for Colored Girls opened in Nashville on October 9, 1923. Prior to its opening, the state confined African American girls who needed correctional services in institutions with convicted adults. In opposition to this practice, Frankie Pierce, an African American activist, initiated a campaign for the establishment of a correctional school for girls.
In April 1921 the Tennessee General Assembly authorized the establishment of the Tennessee Vocational School for Colored Girls and appropriated fifty thousand dollars to purchase a site and construct a building. The state selected a sixty-six-acre site on Heiman Street near the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School (now Tennessee State University). When the school opened, it served African American girls aged twelve through fifteen from across the state, whom the courts judged to be delinquent. Frankie Pierce, the school’s first superintendent (1923-39), planned and implemented a personal development program that emphasized health, recreation, physical needs, moral training, and religion. She instilled an appreciation for the dignity of labor and encouraged the girls to become self-supporting. Nearby Hubbard Hospital at Meharry Medical College provided medical and dental care for the girls. In addition, the school employed a part-time physician to meet student health needs.
During the first year of operation, the school served thirty-five girls from eight Tennessee counties. These juveniles had been convicted of offenses ranging from “incorrigibility and bad conduct” to intent to murder. A fire on December 12, 1923, destroyed the contents of the school, but donations from across the state quickly replaced the loss.
During the years 1928-30, the school served as many as sixty-seven girls from sixteen counties. Program directors rationalized that most girls would enter domestic service after leaving the program and emphasized sewing, cooking, house cleaning, and laundering. During this same period, the school expanded its educational offerings to include grades one through twelve. Of the girls who completed their sentences during this period, thirty-four returned to their homes, and thirteen entered domestic service.
During the 1940s the school offered military training and created a cadet corps of two battalions. Increasingly, the school utilized city and county services for the girls. During the week the girls attended Haynes High School (a county school) for their high school coursework. On Sundays, the school transported them to city churches for religious services. In 1948 the school’s cosmetology department, established in 1943, received accreditation.
By 1956-57 the physical plant had grown from the original building to include five brick structures. That year, the State Department of Education accredited the elementary and junior high school programs of the institution, the staff of five certified instructors expanded to include a psychologist, and child care and commercial training (typing) were added to the curriculum.
The Department of Correction desegregated all Tennessee juvenile correctional institutions during the 1966-67 academic year and prepared to close the Tennessee Vocational School for Colored Girls, changing its name to the State Vocational School. The school initiated a prerelease cottage program, upgraded the remedial reading program, and emphasized academic subjects. During the period 1968-70, the program added counseling and psychiatric services and expanded recreational activities. The population increased to 103 girls, and the school encouraged parental visitation.
In 1970-71 the school became the Tennessee Guidance and Reception Center for Children. The staff of sixty-nine expanded to include a full-time licensed practical nurse and a full-time chaplain. The institution closed in 1979.
Gary Shockley, “A History of the Incarceration of Juveniles in Tennessee, 1796-1970,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 43 (1984): 229-49