The story of Scarritt Bennett Center is a story more than a century in the making, rich in cultural heritage and deeply rooted in a commitment to the causes of social justice.
What is now Scarritt Bennett Center began over a hundred years ago in Kansas City, Missouri, as Scarritt College for Christian workers, a school established to train young women missionaries.
In 1924, the school relocated to Nashville and worked to establish a campus. Henry Hibbs, a local architect, was contracted to draw up plans for five new buildings. Between 1924 and 1927, with funds raised by the Women’s Missionary Societies, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and local donors, the Belle Bennett Memorial (Scarritt Hall, Bennett Hall, Wightman Chapel and the Tower) as well as the Susie Gray Dining Hall were constructed.
Belle Harris Bennett
A groundbreaking achievement at the time, architect Henry Hibbs received a number of prestigious awards for the design of the campus, including the coveted AIA Gold Medal. The buildings, an original example of architecture utilizing locally-sourced materials, were constructed in collegiate gothic architectural style from East Tennessee crab orchard stone.
The inspiring setting of the original campus served as the context for a young and culturally diverse student body to become educated in the different cultures, languages and traditions of those whom they would later serve. In their time, these young students utilized their training to face wars, famine and severe poverty both at home and abroad. A few decades later, at the height of the civil rights movement, the college hosted Martin Luther King, Jr. in Wightman Chapel as part of an instructional series on the role of the church in confronting racism.
Scarritt College’s rich legacy of social engagement and activism is the foundation upon which Scarritt Bennett Center’s current mission is founded.
For a brief time, from 1981–1988, Scarritt College became Scarritt Graduate School, with graduate degree offerings in Church Music and Christian Education.
The graduate school closed down in 1988, and the grounds were purchased by the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Church. At this time, Scarritt Bennett Center, the nonprofit organization which continues to operate from the historic campus on 19th Avenue today, was founded.
A Civil Rights Spotlight
First Black Students at Scarritt Bennett Center
In 1952, the Scarritt College faculty, led by Dr. Ina Corinne Brown, urged the school to desegregate. That year, Lelia Robinson and DeLaris Johnson became the school’s first full-time black students. They were active in student life – Robinson served as editor of the yearbook and Johnson was Treasurer of the student council. When a photo was published in the Nashville Banner at their graduation in 1954, Scarritt was inundated with phone calls from the public saying “You can’t do this!” The president’s secretary was proud to reply “We’ve already done it!” Scarritt was one of the first predominately white private colleges to desegregate in the state of Tennessee. Scarritt Bennett is proud to celebrate Black History Month.
Martin Luther King’s Speech in Wightman Chapel
In 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King addressed church leaders during a conference at Scarritt College that addressed racial segregation in the South, making a call for leadership to moderate white Southerners and black leaders. “The salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted,” he said. “…the challenge to you is to be maladjusted to the evils of segregation…the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.” These words ring true today. Scarritt Bennett Center is proud to celebrate Black History Month.
Campus Grill Protests
In the spring of 1963, Lorine Chan, a Scarritt College student from Fiji, was denied service at the Campus Grill, a local “greasy spoon.” In response, Scarritt students joined others from Peabody College and Vanderbilt University to coordinate a boycott of the Campus Grill, which eventually agreed to desegregate if the demonstrations were called off. Driven by these events, Scarritt’s activist students committed themselves to the Freedom Movement. Scarritt Bennett Center is proud to celebrate Black History Month.
William Barbee’s Story
In April 1964, civil rights protesters focused efforts on some of the establishments that refused to desegregate, including restaurants on West End Ave. and downtown Church Street. Several Scarritt College students participated in these non-violent demonstrations. One of them, William Barbee, was arrested and attacked, beaten and jailed by white employees and police officers.
Barbee’s injuries stayed with him the rest of his life. We honor his courage in the face of injustice. Scarritt Bennett Center is proud to celebrate Black History Month.