When Vanderbilt University was established in 1873, there were few schools in Tennessee designed to prepare students for college. Of the dozens of schools that sprung up around Vanderbilt over the next 100 years, only three were established before the university. Montgomery Bell Academy and the McTyeire School were founded in 1867, followed by the Webb School in 1870. These three schools set the standard for preparatory schools to come, and MBA is still influencing private boys’ education in Tennessee. Many Webb School graduates went on to found their own schools after leaving Vanderbilt or other colleges.
After the Civil War, Tennessee’s education system was nonexistent. There was not enough government funding to provide adequate public schools, so religious organizations, individuals and communities began establishing private schools for students. While boys were the main beneficiaries, especially of college preparatory education, there were a few “female institutes” dedicated to educating girls. Some schools also allowed a few female pupils, although most were predominately boys’ schools. The schools described in this project are no exception.
Vanderbilt Chancellor James Kirkland was a particular champion of these preparatory schools. He saw them as a way to maintain high admission standards for Vanderbilt and some schools were held in high enough esteem that their graduates were automatically accepted into Vanderbilt. The Webb School’s first graduating class was Vanderbilt’s first freshman class. The success of these private schools inspired cities and counties to build the public school programs; as the public school system grew, the private schools began to lose students and funding. Local school systems bought private school property in addition to gaining private school students. While only seven of the 32 schools in this history are still open, they all had a profound impact on education in Tennessee and on Vanderbilt University.
There have been other private schools in Tennessee, but this project is focused only on those schools that had close ties to Vanderbilt University. This project was made possible by a generous donation from the William O. Batts family. Batts, a one-time university registrar emeritus, taught at Branham & Hughes Military Academy and Columbia Military Academy, where he was also superintendent emeritus. Much of the source material for this project came from his book Private Prepartory Schools for Boys in Tennessee, published in 1957, and from the Tennesee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, produced by the Tennessee Historical Society. Other sources have been noted as needed.