Long before this beautiful building was constructed, Pearl High School was serving the African American students and community in Nashville. It was established in 1883 as a grammar school, and the first public school for black students. In 1897, it became a high school for grades 9-11 which were transferred from Meigs School. In 1917, 12th grade was added. It moved from the original location on old South Summer Street, then to 16th Avenue North and Grant Street, and in 1936, to the current location on Seventeenth Avenue North (Tennessee Historical Commission plaque).
Pearl High School, named for Joshua F. Pearl, the city’s first superintendent of schools, was built in 1937 by the Public Works Administration. Architects were the prominent African American firm of McKissack & McKissack. The PWA Moderne styled building has many Art Deco influences, including the grillwork, stylized carving and reliefs in various buildings, and terrazzo floor at the entry level (University of South Carolina, Museum of Education; Pearl High School: pbs.org; Pearl High School 1883-1983, Tennessee State University).
In 1940, nearly 60% of the faculty held master’s degrees, and the school was the center of cultural activity for the Nashville black community because of its large performance venue, the auditorium.
Considered at the time the finest school for blacks in the South, the building’s art deco design included terrazzo floor at the entry level. (Museum of Education)
A vocational building was added in 1945, also by McKissack and McKissack, and a gymnasium and stadium in 1948. A cafeteria, four classrooms, and another gym were added in 1964. Following integration of Nashville’s public schools, the facility ended its days as an all-black school in 1971 and students were transferred to the newly integrated Pearl-Cohn high school. Pearl closed in 1983, and re-opened in 1986 as the Martin Luther King Magnet School, and focused on students who were interested in health, sciences, and engineering (pbs.org). Pearl High School Alumni began organizing for a return to the historical name.
The historical legacy of Pearl High School was implicitly if not explicitly dismissed. School officials even considered sandblasting the name–removing Pearl High School–from the facade of the building.
Talk of dropping the MLK name and returning to the name Pearl High School followed, however, those alumni from the time it was name Martin Luther King Magnet School identified that would be the same travesty revisited on those students of losing acknowledgement of the historical past. In 2001, it was renamed the Martin Luther King Magnet School at Pearl High School, in part due to the leadership of the Pearl High School Committee of Alumni and Friends. The committee curates and manages a museum in the Vocation Building that includes historic documents and memorabilia from the days as Pearl High School.