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Grays Creek/Eads

 

 


 

 


Submitted by Sylvester Lewis
Member, Shelby County Historical Commission & Rural Heritage Trust
Long Time Eads Resident

 

Grays Creek

   Before there was Eads, that area of eastern Shelby County, Tennessee was known by at least two other names. Its core was called “Sewardville”. Much of the surrounding area was known as Grays Creek, probably due to the vast amount of land owned in the area by brothers James and John Gray, who were among Shelby County’s earliest settlers. John Gray’s home is believed to have been the first built of bricks in all of West Tennessee. The John Gray house was moved to Germantown Municipal Park in 1989 and restored for visits.

   The Royster family was also among pioneers who settled in the Grays Creek are. Jowel W. Royster acquired a huge tract of land soon after arriving from Virginia in the 1820s. Other family members, including Joel’s father, Dr. David Royster, came several years later. Some of them acquired land, also. The surname of some of the other Caucasians who acquired substantial amounts of land in Grays Creek / Sewardville prior to the Civil War were: Adams, Anderson, Bragg, Brooks, Bryan, Chambers, Crenshaw, Donelson, Leake, Lewis, Redd, Russell, Stark, Starr, Wylie, and Williams. Most of those families came from Virginia and North Carolina. Some brought slaves with them. Some of the others acquired slaves later. A trail running east-west directions through the heart of Grays Creek became known as the Stagecoach Road. It was one of the arteries used in the late 1830’s to remove Native Americans to western territories during the “Trail Of Tears”.

   The first African-American to acquire land in the Grays Creek area (and possibly Shelby County) was Joseph Harris, who at age 37 was freed from slavery in Goochland, Virginia in 1832. Joseph Harris also became known as “Free Joe”. Harris had accompanied brothers Richard and Samuel Leake from Virginia in the mid-1830s to be with his wife and children who were slaves owned by Samuel Leake. Harris purchased his first parcel of land and the freedom of his wife and baby soon after arriving in Grays Creek. He purchased additional tracts in later years, boosting his total and ownership at its peak to approximately 450 acres. General farming was his livelihood. He was also a Baptist preacher. Around 1840, Joseph Harris and another free man of color named Simon Price, along with numerous slaves, founded Shelby County’s first African-American church. After worshipping for several years without a name, the Baptist congregation adopted the name “Grays Creek” in 1843, using the then-name of the road on which it was located. Historical evidence indicates that the elder Price, a shoemaker and preacher, was the church’s first pastor.

   By 1850 the Grays Creek community had been divided into two civil districts, separated by the Stagecoach Road. On the north was the 8th and on the south was the 9th. James Gray also had begun operation of his stagecoach transportation business.
Beginning right after the abolition of slavery, and aided by the American Missionary Association (AMA) and Freedman’s Bureau, a school was established at Grays Creek Church for African-Americans. More African-Americans began to acquire land in Grays Creek / Sewardville. Some of their surnames are listed as follows: Anderson, Branch, Brooks, Ford, Gray, Guy, Harris, Leake, Lewis, and Williams. Thomas Jefferson Jones better known as Jeff Jones), and like Joseph Harris, freed from slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation may have been the first. Jones made a down payment on a farm just north of Grays Creek Church right after selling his lot in Somerville, Fayette, Tennessee in 1865.

   Joseph Harris, whose property straddled the Stagecoach Road, had operated a way station from his homestead for an unknown period of time before he died in 1875, about 10 years after the death of his wife Fannie. His land was subdivided per his will and passed down to several of his children and their spouses. Thomas Jefferson Jones and his wife, Adaline, both advanced in age, are believed to have died during the 1880s. Their property was sold. A portion of the track was purchased by William T. Horton, who was one of the first African-Americans to practice medicine in rural Shelby County.

 

Eads

   Eads was founded in 1888 when tracks for the Tennessee Midland Railroad were laid through the village that had been known as Sewardville. It was named in the memory of recently deceased James Buchanan Eads, a U.S. engineer and inventor, who was esteemed by officials of the railroad industry. According to a gravestone inscription in Eads Cemetery, Thomas Clay Owen was the town’s founder. Owen, a merchant and justice of the peace, is said to have been instrumental in landing the train depot and post office for the community. Beginning with its founding the Eads Post Office has provided mail service for parts of booth Shelby County and Fayette County. Except for a few merchants who occupied the town’s core agriculture was the livelihood of just about everyone. Cotton was the staple. Thomas (Tom) Seward owned and operated a large cotton plantation. He also owned and operated a cotton gin at the northwest corner of what is now Highway 64 an Airline Road. The farmers also produced corn and hay. They produced crops of fruits and vegetables. They raised a variety of livestock, and there were several dairy farmers in the area. Some farmers produced small amount of sorghum and tobacco.

   There were churches for white people in Grays Creek / Eads that date back into 1800. Chambers Chapel is located on Chambers Chapel Road, about one mile north of Highway 64. Several others are located near the Eads Post Office. Between 1870 and 1900 several other African-American churches were founded in Grays Creek / Eads. They were First Baptist Eads, near the train depot, Morning Grove to the west and Mt. Pisgah to the south. After the arrival of the automobile, the Stagecoach Road was upgraded through Grays Creek / Eads and underwent several name changes. For a number of years it was known as Memphis and Somerville Road. During the early 1900s, the Corps of Engineers constructed a canal through the northern portion of the ninth civil district to alleviate flood conditions. The canal was named Grays Creek. Also, early in the twentieth century the railroad’s name was changed to Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis (NC & ST.L).

   Between 1912 and 1920, several public schools, financed in part by the Rosenwald Foundation, were erected near Grays Creek / Eads for African-Americans. There was an African-American named Eads that was housed in the Saint Matthew lodge building near the Fayette County line. In 1918, the Shelby County Board of Education bought three acres of land from Henry and Luella Harris Anderson and erected a school for African-Americans on the lot. The new and larger school (P-8), located about equidistance between Grays Creek and St. Matthews, took in pupils from both, ending the need to the two older and smaller schools. It was officially named Eads Consolidated School. It first principal is believed to have been Ellis Teague. The names of some of the other Rosenwald Schools erected in Grays Creek / Eads for
African-Americans were Log Union, Moore, Morning Grove, Mt. Pisgah, and Wells. There was George R. James School for white children. It was located on what now is Collierville Road about equidistance between Highway 64 and Macon Road.
The Wells School, 4140 Collierville-Arlington Road, built in 1924-25 with partial funding from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
Beginning with the 1920 U.S. Federal Census, portions of the 8th and 9th civil districts were changed to civil districts 1 and 2. Around 1925, the Memphis and Somerville Road’s name was changed to State Highway 15. It would become U.S. Highway 64 around 1933. By the early 1930s there were several general stores, a blacksmith shop, a gin, a couple of gristmills, a sawmill, and an electrician’s shop located in Eads’ core.

   During the mid-1930s an African-American Baptist Church organization, moderated by Rev. Jesse Campbell of Memphis, purchased (or leased) several acres of land in Eads on the south of Highway 64 at the Fayette County line and erected a tabernacle for its annual summer association meetings and worship. It continued for about twenty-five years. Around that same time an African-American named George Williams provided a small tract of his land to be used by members of his race for picnic and other forms of recreation. The tract, located about one mile west of the tabernacle on the south side of Highway 64, across from Eads School, was known as George Williams Park.
Also during the mid-1930s Dr. James N. Cliatt, a Caucasian native of Georgia, and a World War I medical officer, bought a farm at the southeast section of Highway 64 and Reed Hooker Road. He constructed a distinguished-looking rock gate at the property’s main entrance, hence the Rock Gate Farm. Dr. Cliatt drove to and from his office/clinic in the Sterick Building in Downtown Memphis. The farm was managed by an African-American named Elton Brooks. Dr. Cliatt sold the farm during World War II.

   In late October 1941, a bus transporting white children hoe from George R. James School was struck by an incoming passenger train the Eads Depot. The bus driver and several pupils were killed. Several other were seriously injured. During World War II, and as the nation recovered from the Great Depression, many small farmers left the farms for better paying jobs in the cities. Most of those who continued farming were affluent owners and renters of large tracts of land, who had the means to purchase or lease expensive motorized machinery.
Also at the end of World War II, grades 9 and 10 were added to Eads School. Beginning in the early 1950s, bus transportation was provided for African-American school children in Grays Creek / Eads. High school students were bussed to Barret’s Chapel in north Shelby County until a new high school was erected at Mt. Pisgah.

   Train service through Grays Creek / Eads was terminated around 1960. Highways 64 and the new 385 (also known as Winfield Dunn Parkway) are the major roads crisscrossing through the community. Other less travelled roads running east-west are Bragg, George R. James, Latting, Macon, Collierville, Chambers Chapel, Cobb, Inglewood Place, the northern part of Houston Levee, and Reed Hooker. Jefferson and Washington are two of the shorter roads that meander through the Eads core. Several residential subdivisions including Grays Creek Meadows, Four Winds, and Schaeffer were constructed in Grays Creek / Eads in recent years. Along with the new homes came new, short roads.

   Dogwood Village, an institution for youths with behavioral issues, is located on Breckemeyer Drive, south of Highway 64, about 2/20 mile east of Macon Road Baptist Church. It sits on land donated by descendants of Joseph (Joe) Lewis and his wives Sarah (maiden name unknown) and Callie Francis Jones. Established in 1980 under the jurisdiction of Shelby County Juvenile Court, the Dogwood Campus is the first of its kind in the mid-south. It merged with Youth Villages in 1986.

   India Cultural Center and Temple was established in Eads on the south side of Highway 64m about 2/10 mile west of Highway 385m in the early 1990s. Several white church congregations have relocated to the Grays Creek / Eads community in recent years. Notably among them is Macon Road Baptist Church, located on the south side of Highway 64, about one mile west of Reed Hooker Road. Much of the Grays Creek / Eads community us still unincorporated. In recent years, Arlington and Lakeland annexed portions north of Highway 64. Memphis annexed the area south of the highway.

Some aspects of this narrative’s content may not be historically accurate. It is intended to provide a general picture of a part of east Shelby County based on the following sources: Agricultural Schedules, Census Records, Ellen Davies-Rodgers (Along The StageCoach Road), Ida Cooper Papers, oral history, personal knowledge, property deeds, Shelby County Schools’ records, and slave schedules.


 

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