Free Public School Lunch for Impoverished Children

The genesis of free public school lunch for impoverished children in Nashville, TN

Teacher Cornelia Barksdale and her amazing works.

When my grandmother passed in 1978, it was a devastating loss to the family. She was the rock of our world and the most influential person in my young life. I was astonished to read in the paper a few days after her death, of the early works of her as a school-girl in about the 5th grade.

Some students in her class were chronically hungry at school. Her father owned a grocery store on Carroll Street just a block from the old Howard School, and on the same block as their residence. She persuaded him to donate food supplies that she then prepared, and brought to school for those in need.

Margaret Daisy Kerr far left circa 1912

There are no newspaper accounts of my grandmother’s activities at the time, other than the amazing amount of social media coverage of the day: children’s birthday party attendees, trips to the country, illnesses, you name it.

In Nashville, Julia Green (the elementary school in Nashville on Hobbs Road is named for her) is credited with the free school lunch program (on the historical marker in front of the school). 

However, there is no mention of the free lunch program in the news relating to her, or in her obituary. This is not to say that she does not deserve some credit for it. After all, she was the newly appointed first supervisor of Davidson County elementary schools in 1911. 

Julia Green’s Passing in 1961

The first mention in the media of the free lunch for students appears in 1912. It is likely that this would have to had to been approved by Miss Green.

January 13, 1912. Cornelia Barksdale and two other Head School teachers launched a ground breaking social experiment that may have been to first of its kind in the South.

“Not many years ago the public schools of this country – especially in the factory districts – were trying to educate under-grown, poorly clothed and half-starved children, and could not understand why they failed to get the expected results. The children were backward and apparently stupid and some declared that it was hopeless to deal with them.”

Genesis of the free public school lunches for poor children

Whether my grandmother got the idea from Cornelia Barksdale, or she from her, we will probably never know for sure.

After the Head School experiment, Cornelia goes on to spear-head health care for low income students, launch the first “Special School” for advanced placement students, entertained children at the Carnegie Library with weekly story-telling and many, many more events, boards and committees.

She was one of the top lieutenants of the Suffragette movement and volunteered with the YMCA to serve in France during World War I.

suffrage association captures 314 mentions of “Cornelia Barksdale” between 1900 and 1977 in Nashville,TN with 303 between 1910 and 1919. I have compiled about 70 of them that are noteworthy in this attached PDF:

Download the news articles on Cornelia Barksdale here.

Compiled by Bob Henderson during May – July 2023


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