When Tina Turner, resident in Switzerland, read in Bilanz magazine that her old school in Tennessee was being turned into a museum, she assumed it must be a local white school from the era of Jim Crow racial segregation, perhaps with her name appended after the fact.
Then she realised it really was Flagg Grove school, the one-room schoolhouse attended by the young Anna Mae Bullock (AKA Tina Turner), having been built by her great uncle in 1889. “Immediately then I became excited and got involved,” Turner says in a video on the website of what is now the Tina Turner Museum containing memorabilia including costumes, gold records and her high school yearbook.
News of the rock’n’roll queen’s death on Wednesday at the age of 83 instantly turned the schoolhouse into a shrine. One tearful pilgrim, Lisa Lyons, told the Associated Press: “She was fierce, and she was strong, and she was powerful, and that has stayed with me. As a little girl of color who didn’t have that type of role model in real life, it has stuck with me all these years.”
Turner’s Grammy-winning singing career included the hit songs Proud Mary, What’s Love Got to Do With It and We Don’t Need Another Hero, from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Her film credits also include Tommy and Last Action Hero.
The museum – which will hold a twilight memorial service on Sunday – opened in 2014 inside the renovated Flagg Grove school at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, about 50 miles north-east of Memphis. Turner attended school in the one-room building as a child growing up in nearby Nutbush, one of the small, rural towns that dot the farms and fields of western Tennessee.
In a video on the museum’s website, Turner recalls: “I remember exactly what it looked like and the horror part is there was a school mate, his name was Boobie and he threw rocks. So Boobie threw rocks and we had the break in school and he was also a neighbour of ours and so after school, walking from school, we were always dodging rocks all the time from Boobie and that was a fond memory.”
She adds that there was only one teacher in elementary school, teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. “My favourite subjects would have been, I think at the time, English and of course recess for sport, and my least favourite was arithmetic.”
Turner reflects on her civil rights inspirations and comments: “I hope that as people walk through the school, they see that I set an example for a hometown girl that grew up in hard times, that made a good life for herself, and follow my example. I’m very proud that it’s there. I hope that people will leave taking the importance of education.”
The building was on farmland owned by Benjamin Flagg, who saw a need for a school for the area’s Black children, and is typical of the schoolhouses for African American children that sprang up in the rural south after the civil war. The school closed in 1967 and was used as a barn before being moved by tractor-trailer from Nutbush to Brownsville. Private funds were then raised to restore it. Turner sent career memorabilia and helped direct the process from afar.
The museum, which averaged 35,000 visitors a year before the coronavirus pandemic hit, contains a set-up of the classroom, including the original blackboard and wooden desks used by Turner and her fellow students. There are photos of Turner as well as the Armani, Versace and Bob Mackie dresses she wore on stage.
The heritage centre’s director, Sonia Outlaw-Clark, 59, says: “When she sent her stuff she really wanted the school to shine. She knew the importance of education and she wanted people to realise that and be able to get the sense of where she came from.
“Because of that, the cases that were designed and built for her costumes are all glass, so you still see the original walls, floors, ceilings. You still get that sense of that old school but then you also see the glitz and the glamour of her career.”
She adds: “Also inside the school, tucked away in a corner under straw, were some of the original desks and benches from the school when she was there. The chalkboard was still on the wall, the cubbies that the kids would have hung their coat on and put their books in was all still there, so that’s still a part of the structure now.”
Turner’s rags-to-riches story is captured in this single room. The school had no electricity or plumbing (for water it had to rely on a well pump, which is also on display). The toilets were holes in the ground with sheds built over. Heating was provided by a simple potbelly stove. Fittingly, the first group to visit the museum when it opened was a party of schoolchildren.
The director recalls: “Their teacher took them through a class like if they had been in a one-room school. They did a simulation of the different grades and how the lessons would have gone. Children these days don’t even know what a chalkboard is; they have whiteboards and other kind of boards I don’t remember the name of because I’m too old. It was definitely a contrast and definitely caught their attention to think that someone would have gone to school in those circumstances.”
She continues: “When you walk in you see the glitz and glamour from her career but you turn a corner around some cases and there’s the old desk and the chalkboard and all that and it’s a stark difference. You get to the back of a school where there’s the stage area that many of the former students talk about: they would stand up on that stage and do the devotion; the teacher would sit on that stage.
“We’ve heard stories the teacher’s desk was strategically so she could see the boys’ outhouse and the girls’ outhouse, so she could tell if you asked to go to the restroom that you went to the right place.”
Tennessee joined the pro-slavery Confederacy in the civil war, was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, was the scene of at least 236 lynchings between 1877 and 1950. The landmark Brown v Board of Education supreme court case outlawed racial segregation in public schools in 1954 but most segregated schools were not integrated until many years later.
Outlaw-Clark reflects: “The school was built because there was no other education provided for Black children at that time and, before the public school system took over, it was pretty much up to those families to educate and take care of their children that way.
“We learned when we were researching the school that her great-uncle – her great-grandfather’s brother – actually built the school and so that made it even more special because not only was it a part of her schooling but it was a part of her family legacy.”
The museum also adds to Tennessee’s enviable musical heritage. Carl Perkins was from the area, as are the contemporary artists Valerie June and Justin Timberlake. “We like to think it’s something in the water but undoubtedly I haven’t drunk enough water because I have no music talent.”
Turner, who lived in Küsnacht near Zurich and whose health was failing in recent years, never visited the museum but Outlaw-Clark did get to meet her. The director made her first trip to New York in 2019 to attend the opening of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. “I just felt really comfortable around her,” she recalls, “so that was nice to know that she was still just like a hometown girl, like we all were.”
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