By Shara Casey, Knox Heritage Intern

An unassuming building situated on the northern edge of Old City, and now home to the county’s Democratic Party, 311 Morgan Street holds an unexpected piece of Knoxville history. The Peabody School was the first purpose-built schoolhouse constructed by the Knoxville public school system and was erected in 1875, just four years after the establishment of the school system itself. As the name suggests, the funding for the building was owed in large part to contributions from noted investor and philanthropist George Peabody, whose foundation had previously donated a sum of $7,500 to Knoxville schools. 

The building was dedicated on April 6, 1875, with a procession from the Bell House School to the new Morgan Street site, where a fairly large crowd was gathered to watch Mayor Peter Staub present the keys to the building and listen to an abundance of choral music sung by the students. This fanfare reflected the popularity of the project and the magnitude of support for publicly funded education by the citizens of Knoxville. So great was the pride of some citizens for the new schoolhouse that a few even wrote to newspapers to complain about it being named for Peabody, when the majority of funds had come from the “liberal generosity” of taxpayers. 

As beloved as the schoolhouse was, there were some immediate difficulties that appeared when students began their first semesters at Peabody. The school was originally staffed with two instructors, but it quickly became apparent that the volume of students – nearly 200 were enrolled by the end of the first term – demanded more oversight, and another teacher was added just two weeks after the school opened. In addition, the school system struggled to pay the teachers it staffed for the first several years after its opening, probably due to the fact that the city government under Staub had accrued well over $100,000 in debt – a debt that was created in no small part by the funding of the school system and purchase of the Bell House School. In 1876, it narrowly escaped burning down when a piece of the plaster detached from a wall and was ignited by the main furnace. 

Despite its rocky start, the Peabody School maintained a nearly full roster and was repeatedly commended for the quality of the students that it taught for the next 45 years, often appearing in the newspaper as the producer of local award-winning young authors, artists, and spelling bee champions. However, in 1920, the school board decided that it would be more efficient for the students of Peabody to combine with those of the Jesse A. Rayl School at the location of the latter. This was due in part to the fact that some staff was commuting between the schools multiple times a day to teach and in part due to the capital that could be gained from selling the Peabody schoolhouse. 

Even after its use as a full-time school was discontinued, the building was utilized by the city government and school board as an all-purpose meeting place. Between the years 1920 and 1930, it was variously used as a clubhouse for the parent-teacher association of the Peabody-Rayl School, a voting site for local and national elections, and off-campus mechanics and printing classrooms for Knoxville High School.  

Finally, in 1930, the Peabody School building was set to be sold at auction for no less than $10,000 and was purchased by the Central Labor Council for exactly that much on July 16th of the same year. Under this new ownership, the façade took the shape that it remains in today. Two parallel wings were added to the front of the building, now sufficiently old enough to be considered historic in their own right. The Central Labor Union operated out of the old schoolhouse until just a few years ago, when the property passed to the hands of the Knox County Democratic Party to be used as their headquarters. 

Knox Heritage preserves structures and places of historic or cultural significance for our community. Established in 1974 as a non-profit educational corporation, our organization works to protect and raise awareness of what is beautiful and irreplaceable in East Tennessee.