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Merrill School: A Look Back

Each week this month, we’re dedicating the blog to articles about Merrill School as we look forward to the Merrill All School Reunion set for June 17-19 in Pine Bluff. In this article, we take a look back at the school’s earliest history.

If you’re of a certain age and you grew up in or around Jefferson County, you probably remember Merrill School. If you were African American, maybe you went there. Merrill School was one of four high schools that served black students in the Pine Bluff area until the public schools were integrated in 1971.

The school’s namesake is Joseph Merrill, a philanthropist from Rockingham County, New Hampshire. In 1886, Merrill sold a block of land and a two-story house between Mulberry, Linden, Scull, and Pullen streets to the Pine Bluff School District for $4,000. Merrill generously donated money to African Americans to remodel the house into a five-room schoolhouse they called Greenwood School. The board later changed the name of the school to the Merrill Public School in honor of Joseph Merrill.

In 1894, Merrill School produced its first graduates, James Moore, Henry D. Kewit, and Isaac Moon.

Merrill School was blessed with capable leadership from the beginning—and no shortage of challenges. The school’s first principal was Rev. Lewis Johnson, who was remembered as an exceptional teacher. Next was Marion R. Perry, Jr., a graduate of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, who faced major difficulties during his time as administrator. One of the biggest was fire. The school burned on three occasions within a short time. Arson was the cause.

For several years in the early 1900s, Merrill School served elementary students, while the high school-age children attended Missouri Street School. In 1913, high school students returned to Merrill, where William Townsend was principal. Under Townsend’s administration, the school expanded, the curriculum was enriched, enrollment increased, and several teachers were added to the faculty. Townsend remained principal of Merrill School until his death in 1941. R.N. Chaney succeeded Townsend, leading the school to several major achievements, including the purchase of an athletic field and lighting. Merrill School earned accreditation in the North Central Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges. The principal and more than twenty teachers held master’s degrees, exceeding that of any other public school in Arkansas at the time.

After 1951, under the leadership of principal M.D. Jordan, the school achieved more milestones, including the creation of a guidance program, the establishment of a band program, complete with instruments and uniforms, and the construction of a fine arts building to house the band, choir, cafeteria, and industrial arts classes.

During the 1950s and 60s, “Brown vs Board of Education” ended legal segregation in public schools. This led to changes at Merrill School. Merrill School’s last senior class graduated in May 1970. Senior high students and those in lower grades were transferred to the all-white Pine Bluff High and to other all-white schools in the area. In the fall of 1971, Merrill reopened as a junior high school and produced students until 1975.

Tragedy struck the historic Merrill School building in 1986 when a fire broke out. The blaze continued for two hours as Merrill alumni watched with awe and tears as the school they so loved was destroyed. Arson was suspected, reported the Pine Bluff Commercial at the time.

In 2004, Simmons Bank donated Merrill’s lease to the Merrill Restoration Alliance, an organization that serves as the custodian for the site and continues to preserve this historical landmark.

Please join us as we continue to celebrate Merrill School every Wednesday this month.

Sources: Ella B. McPherson, Irma Holiday, Bessie Jordan, Shirley Williams Bell, Rosie Thomas Pettigrew; Wikipedia

Image Credit: Rosie Thomas Pettigrew

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