After several years of being established on paper, Bradley Academy opened in 1811, the same year the Tennessee General Assembly designated Murfreesborough as the new Rutherford County seat.
By the time, Murfreesboro’s first Courthouse was complete in 1813, the academy was up and running.
Bradley Academy was named in honor of John Bradley, a Revolutionary War officer, who donated the acreage the log cabin school was built on near Jefferson, the original county seat.
Bradley’s origin as an institution of learning stems from the Congressional Land Grant Act of 1806. In response to this act, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation establishing an academy in each Tennessee county. Bradley, after a year or two of hesitation, was established by William P. Anderson, John Bedford, Joseph Dixon, Robert Smith and John Thompson Sr. as trustees.
The school would soon relocate to Murfreesborough where it produced some distinguished students, including John Bell and James K. Polk.
During its early years, Samuel P. Black was headmaster of Bradley Academy.
Born in Guilford County, N.C., Black’s parents had come to America from Northern Ireland. Their son, at age 19, was teaching at a classical school near Abingdon, Va. He was soon offered a professorship at the University of Georgia in Athens, an early state-chartered university.
But by 1798, Black relocated to Nashville where he taught at Cumberland College. Later he moved to Sumner County where he opened Montpelier Academy.
In 1805, he married Fannie Sanders and quit teaching. Moving to Gallatin, Black became a merchant who joined a venture to build flatboats and ship produce to New Orleans. He lost his investment and returned to teaching, this time at Bradley Academy. He taught there until his death in 1838.
Black is buried in the Black Cemetery near Walter Hill.
During Black’s leadership, Bradley Academy became quite famous in Middle Tennessee and attracted students from nearby counties.
The curriculum included English grammar, Latin, Greek, math, geography, philosophy, astronomy, logic and creative writing.
Students boarded with families in Murfreesborough and were expected to assist in furnishing firewood for the school.
Young James Polk followed his Maury County teacher, Dr. Robert Henderson, to Murfreesborough when he joined the teaching staff at Bradley Academy in 1814. Henderson was also founding pastor of First Presbyterian Church.
Polk delivered the commencement address in 1814. In the audience that night were Mr. and Mrs. Joel Childress of Murfreesboro and their daughter, Sarah who later married Polk.
Bradley Academy was the first school in Murfreesboro, but it was soon followed by the Female Academy in 1825, Union University in 1834 and Soule College in 1851.
After two years at Bradley, Polk transferred to the new University of North Carolina.
After graduation, Polk traveled to Nashville to study law under Felix Grundy. Grundy became Polk's first mentor. On Sept. 20, 1819, Polk was elected to be the clerk for the Tennessee State Senate with Grundy's endorsement. Polk was reelected as clerk in 1821 without opposition and would continue to serve until 1822. Murfreesboro was state capital of Tennessee then.
Back in Murfreesboro, Polk married Sarah Childress.
Somewhat ironically, John Bell, who ended up as Polk’s political opponent, also attended school at Bradley Academy.
Bell, who became an ardent Whig after a dispute with Andrew Jackson, also married a Murfreesboro woman, Sally Dickinson.
He served as U.S. Speaker of the House from 1834 to 1835. He was defeated for the post several other times by his rival Polk.
In the late 1820s or early 1830s, a brick Bradley Academy was built.
The building played host to the classes of Union University while that institution’s facility was being constructed on Main Street in Murfreesboro. Bradley also served as a hospital during the smallpox epidemic of 1836 and again during the Battle of Stones River in 1862.
Bradley Academy closed in the 1850s when the classes and students were absorbed into the newer Union University, also located in Murfreesboro.
In 1884, Bradley was transformed into an African American co-educational public school under the Murfreesboro City Schools system.
Originally, Bradley had 150 students, principal F.G. Carney, and teachers Emma Carney, Mathew Miller and B.B. Woods.
By 1895, Bradley had grown to 356 students and six teachers. In 1898, Bradley added a junior high curriculum. Principal Carney left for a job in Springfield, but soon returned to Murfreesboro where he remained Bradley’s principal until 1915. Aaron D. Wade Sr. was principal during the interim.
The present building was constructed in 1917 and opened the following year.
In 1918, P.S. Jones organized a three-year high school program at Bradley, enrolling 17 students. By 1924, the program was expanded to four years.
When the high school program was adopted, Bradley’s enrollment jumped, forcing school officials to rent more classroom space at nearby Benevolent Lodge Hall. Talks began immediately for the development of a separate high school facility.
The new school was completed in 1929 and in 1930 it was officially dedicated as Holloway High School, named in honor of Murfreesboro attorney E.C. Holloway for recognition of his service in establishing the school.
But the Julius Rosenwald Fund did much to pay for construction of the new high school and a replacement school for Bradley Academy.
Rosenwald was a Sears, Roebuck and Company president and chairman of the board who created the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1917 to coordinate his contributions for African American education. Guided by Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald supported the expansion of public education for rural southern blacks within the context of segregation and vocational training.
State agent for black rural schools Samuel L. Smith obtained the first Rosenwald aid for Tennessee school buildings in 1914.
Integration didn’t happen in Rutherford County until the 1960s. At that point, one city school, one high school and six county elementary schools were in operation for the county’s African American youngsters.
By 1955, Bradley had moved to its current site at the corner of Broad Street and Mercury Boulevard. The former school building was used as a maintenance facility for Murfreesboro City Schools.
In 1990, the Bradley Academy Historical Association was chartered for the purpose of reclaiming and rehabilitating the 1917 building to serve as a multi-purpose, multi-cultural and educational facility for the entire community. That same year the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1991, the Tennessee Historical Commission erected a marker in front of Bradley Academy to designate its importance to the community.
During the 1990s, the Bradley Historical Association, with substantial assistance from the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation, the city of Murfreesboro, the Tennessee Historical Commission, and Rep. Bart Gordon succeeded in totally renovating the historic building.
Funding for the restoration came from the Christy-Houston Foundation, the Tennessee General Assembly, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and private donations.
Reopened to the public in 2000, the Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center now houses an exhibit on the history of Rutherford County in the 1800s, an exhibit on Rutherford County's African-American community including Bradley Academy and Holloway High School memorabilia, a Civil War and Colored Soldier exhibit, a restored heritage classroom, a modern auditorium, kitchen, meeting room, and office space.