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


Tour de West 2016

BMW Motorcycle Tour 2016:

2016 Cross Country Solo Ride: ETD: 15 March 2016. Route: Natchez Trace to the Gulf Coast, Mexican border route to southern California. Pacific Coast Highway to Washington State, east and down the Rockies.

Looking for Habitat for Humanity builds, or similar projects, to volunteer with along the route. Lodging and camp site recommendations appreciated.


Tools for Schools

Nashville School Craftsmen:

“Tools for Schools” is a non-profit 501(c)3, all volunteer group building desks, tables, bookshelves, planters or just about anything needed made of wood or metal for public schools in Nashville. They meet up in the Hillsboro High School former auto vocational shop Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 8 am to noon. It’s located in the rear of the campus near the football field.

The price to the school for equipment is material cost, plus a small mark-up for administrative expenses. This 8’ hardwood trophy case, only cost Percy Priest Elementary $386 to produce.

Support metro schools, learn a trade and hang out with some great guys and gals.

For more information: • 615.442.6837 (NTFS)

Wooten’s White Water

medal-ymca.jpgCamp Widjiwagon at Standing Stone Park:

In the summer of 1972 Richard (Dick) Wooten led us on an ambitious adventure. His mission took ten YMCA campers from the recently defunct Camp Widjiwagon on the adventure of their lives. Earlier that year, the camp had abruptly closed due to an administrative error by the state parks department. It resulted in the termination of the camp’s 18 year lease at Standing Stone State Park, and the permanent closure of the facility (there are other camps by that name in Nashville and Minnesota).

Senior campers had been selected to be camp counselors: L.I.T.’s (leadership in training). L.I.T. was the transition from camper to counselor at Camp Widjiwagon. Due to the administrative SNAFU, we were “out of a camp” after years of attendance.

My parents, Bobby and Carol Henderson, stepped in to try save the program. The lease could not be rescued, but they hoped that the future counselor candidates could be trained, and then go on to another YMCA facility. This would be the chance to get training in leadership. Leadership at a camp that no longer existed. Our new camp would be located along the southern Appalachian byways, back roads, streams, lakes and mountain tops. Our summer home would be a red GMC cargo van with a canoe trailer.

The ad-hoc course consisted of rock climbing, backpacking, and white-water canoeing. The Nantahala, a class III river in western North Carolina, would be the final hurdle in the program. Making the voyage even more difficult, we used bulky two-man aluminum lake canoes, as apposed to white water canoes, which had a higher profile and smooth hulls for faster turning. These metal boats were hard to maneuver and prone to flooding after a few large waves. Widjiwagon’s former canoe instructor, Dick Wooten was recruited to lead the expedition.

We rock-repelled Sunset Rock, hiked 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail and climbed Mt. LeConte (cross-country and back in one day from Greenbrier). We spent most of the summer learning canoe skills on the Conasauga, Hiwassee and Nantahala rivers. Managing ten teenagers in five boats was no small responsibility. Dick Wooten did this with a combination of no-nonsense attention to safety, while injecting humor along the way to keep it amusing. We tested him every step of the way. Unbeknown to us, this combat decorated Korean War veteran had seen worse and managed far more difficult situations. How we made it through that summer with no significant injuries, is an astonishing achievement.

The modern day Camp Widjiwagon marveled at the story of this journey, and said that this would be an impossible liability for any YMCA camp today. It was not by luck, but because Wooten was seemingly present at every turn in the road to head off disaster.

The climax of the summer was the 1972 Southeastern U.S. White Water Championship on the Nantahala River. I run it today, and still get butterflies. It’s an hour plus of full adrenaline, a river so cold it literally takes your breath away if you fall in. A water rescue is always a big part of the training and preparation for the run. It’s a team effort, leaving no room for hesitation or error.

Leaving from the Green Hills YMCA 1972

The white water standing waves come on you at every turn in the river. The lake boats were so low in the river, it required us to bale water with every single stroke. We used plastic jugs with the bottom cut out, to scoop the water from the boat. With each paddle down-stroke, you pulled upward fetching a jug of water from the canoe, heaving it off overboard. Many times, this ended up going all over the paddler in the back, or the canoe next to you – with reprisals for the error.

We used wooden paddles which were subject to breaking in the violent current. A spare one was on board as a back-up. They were loosely tied in with kite string for easy retrieval.

I forget how many volunteered for the competition, but Wally and I were in. The crystal clear water, constant waves and swift currents are as vivid to me, as if it were yesterday. Wally Hynds had the stern and I had the bow.

I was pretty sure we were in fourth place by the finish line, 8 miles downstream. We were closing in on the boat in front of us, but suddenly they pulled away just before the big rapid at the end of the course. As they went into the drop, we lost sight of them due to the 3-4 foot fall of the river. As Mr. Wooten had rehearsed with us, Wally and I set our pre-planned course at river-left, to make a 45° cut down the falls. I pulled a hard port side draw stroke to come left, and then a hard starboard right turn draw into the falls.

There were a lot of people in our peripheral vision and the screams of the crowd flowed threw the roar of the river. But the screams were not for us. Hitting the drop, into the river pool below, we heaved forward not letting our strokes dissipate, or losing balance in the narrow craft. As my eyes rose up, and my third stroke pulled me through the gauntlet, I saw the aftermath of our competitors surge forward. Having rolled their canoe in the falls, one of the boys had grappled onto a large rock in the middle of the river, about 50 feet downstream from the falls. He was pulling himself up out of the river onto the large boulder. This was probably the front paddler.

– Mr. Wooten had trained us never to do this –

As we veered past him, I witnessed the submerged canoe surface right behind his position. Like a boa constrictor, it quietly wrapped itself around his lower extremities pinning him to the boulder. A cold chill coarsed threw me as we slid by. Running at over 700 cubic feet per second, a canoe filled with water can crush bones like a dry stick.


My recollection was that he was pinned, below the waist on the rock, after climbing as far to safety as he could up. By the time we walked back up to the accident, they were still working to get the boat off him. I don’t remember anything after that, except being handed this medal that evening. 3rd place, but it was a hollow victory. I never knew the fate of the crew, after that.


Thanks Dick Wooten, for leading us out in one piece. It made boys into men. You instilled in us, an love for the outdoors, and more importantly, the value of leadership, team work,  preparation and planing. Safety is no accident.

If this blog finds it’s way to anyone in the group, please feel free to share your stories here.

The featured photo at the top  is running Wesser falls in the late 1990’s with my son Eric.

  • Bob Henderson | 2016

Widjiwagon at Standing Stone Facebook Group Page


Cemetery Preservation

The Cemetery Preservation Project 2015:

Preservation of family cemeteries in north Rutherford County is important. Rural areas are turning into suburbs fast. Vandalism, neglect and real estate development is a growing concern.

Cousin Billy Pittard and I joined forces to clean up the Henderson-Malone Cemetery on Powells Chapel Road this week. As opposed to just cutting the undergrowth, we pulled up the entire root balls of mostly privot hedge and honey suckles. This will make future maintenance much easier. Last Thanksgiving we did the first project like this at the Hoover family cemetery at Walter Hill.

This will hopefully be an annual event following each Thanksgiving on Friday, Saturday or Sunday weather permitting. Fences and gates are also needed for these sites as well.


360 Panorama view of the cemetery