All Things Madison | Black History in Madison and How Pension Row Got Its Name
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Black History in Madison and How Pension Row Got Its Name

All Things Madison | Black History in Madison and How Pension Row Got Its Name

The next time you are traveling east or west along either Palmer Road or Mill Road just west of Wall Triana, make a special attempt to look for a street sign that says Pension Row. Take a detour down this quiet residential street and make note of the historical marker you may find. 

This historic street, now a quiet residential area, was once a bustling hub for the black community, offering a glimpse into the past and the challenges faced by its residents. 

It holds tremendous history for black residents especially, who received pensions after World War I and used the influx of funds to buy property along Pension Row. Hence the name “Pension Row”.

This street become a place where black community members did life together. From attending church and school and so much more, this area of town was lively!

Pension Row has been around much longer than its name suggests. In the 1890s, the first private white school in Madison was created near Pension Row, called the Male and Female Academy, owned by John Buchanan Floyd. However, the school faced challenges, including its small size, which eventually led to its relocation several years later.

At this time, black students primarily received education in churches, with some exceptions. New state laws permitted individuals, formerly associated with slavery, to teach their former slaves basic literacy skills, including reading, writing, and elementary math.

Around 1940, a new school building was built on Pension Row, finally providing the first dedicated space for black students in Madison. A few short years later, this school building burned down in 1948, leading to the relocation of black students to West Madison Elementary on Wall Triana (this school building is now the West Madison Pre-K center which opened in the fall of 2023). 

Originally a white affluent community, Pension Row hosted a Presbyterian church and the fifth Masonic lodge in Madison County, a two-story building. The Masons retained the second story, selling the bottom floor to Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

The historical fabric of Pension Row is woven with stories that transcend racial tensions. Dr. Richard Matthew Fletcher, a Civil War physician, played a significant role in diffusing a potential race riot in the 1884. His intervention following the murder of a prominent grocer, Nathaniel R. Freeman, showcased a unique unity within the community, as he urged against retaliation and worked to ensure justice prevailed. You can read about this “murder in Madison” here.

Pension Row stands as a living testament to the rich history of Madison, especially its black community. From the struggles of establishing the first public school to weathering demographic shifts, this historic street stands strong as a piece of Madison’s history while holding onto its quiet charm.

PS: I would be remiss to not thank my dear friend John Rankin for his assistance in piecing this story together. He is Madison’s most knowledgeable historian and a treasure to know. Thank you John!

MORE HISTORY STORIES FROM MADISON

Where did Rainbow Mountain get its name?

Where were Bob Jones and James Clemens?

Here’s a fascinating story about how Madison was founded. 

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All Things Madison | Black History in Madison and How Pension Row Got Its Name