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The history of J.H. Gunn
Photo credit: WorthPoint (www.worthpoint.com)
How many schools can say they were named for a big band? One in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools can J.H. Gunn Elementary, located in east Charlotte, was named for the 1930s big band called the Jimmie Gunn Orchestra.

The Gunn orchestra was known as a territory band during the 1930s. Based in Charlotte, the Jimmie Gunn Orchestra and its singers, the Dixie Serenaders, toured mainly in the Carolinas and Georgia, according to the music website Stardust Song. Such bands typically played ballrooms, minstrel and vaudeville shows, school dances and other venues accessible to African-American musicians in that period of racial segregation. Some historical records suggest that Gunn’s territory may also have included the entire East Coast. But there’s no doubt that he was considered a first-rate musician. Hear music from the Jimmie Gunn Orchestra.

Gunn’s music was recorded in the Southern Radio Corporation’s second-floor warehouse in Charlotte. A biobibliography of North Carolina Jazz Musicians from the Ramsey Library of Special Collections notes that Gunn’s orchestra recorded six selections for the Bluebird label in June 1936. By 1940, however, Gunn decided to quit music for education, taking a job at the Clear Creek Negro School in Charlotte.

Clara Cureton Long, a former student of Gunn’s, said he was the head of the Glee Club and her eighth-grade math teacher.

“Mr. Gunn was all over music. He loved music,” said Long, who was a member of the Glee Club. “He was firm but a very good teacher. He was later named Photograph of Clear Creek Negro School. Photo credit: UNC Charlotte J. Murrey Atkins Special Collectionsprincipal.”

In March of 1954, the community requested that the school board change the name of Clear Creek Negro High School to J.H. Gunn High School.

“The community asked that the school board name it after him, because he was such a dedicated teacher and at Clear Creek for a long time,” said Long.

The school became J.H. Gunn Senior High School with 480 students – just 48 students shy of the school’s maximum capacity.

The historical record is incomplete. But it appears that the school was one of seven black schools in Mecklenburg County closed in 1966 during the desegregation of CMS, according to Board of Education minutes from the period. Records show that upon completion of Northeast Senior High School, the J.H. Gunn Senior High School would cease operations at the end of the 1966-1967 school year.  Students who were rising 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders at J.H. Gunn were to be assigned to new schools.

Board minutes from 1966 also show that the Committee of Concerned Citizens addressed the closing of the seven schools in a letter expressing dissatisfaction about inequality shown to the black community and requesting “a colorblind program of education for all people.”

The school reopened around 1970 as Northeast Junior High School, but the community did not forget the band leader turned teacher.

Almost a decade later, the J.H. Gunn name was attached to a new elementary school – an integrated school. 

Sources include: UNC Charlotte J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections, Ramsey Library Special Collections, WorthPoint, 100.9 Praise, Hey Pally’s 78 rpm Page … & Other Musical Notes, Stardust Song and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education records.

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