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VIProfile: Vonchelle Stembridge

By Lee Rennick

“I will have worked for Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation for 13 years the end of May,” said Vonchelle Stembridge, “and it has never felt like a job. I feel honored to be compensated for doing what I love.”

Stembridge currently serves as the Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center Site Coordinator. In that position, she is in charge of maintaining the facility, curating art exhibits, creating programming and managing festivals. She does it all with a very small staff. 

The Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center has a long history beginning 213 years ago. At that time, it was the name of a school for the education of sons of Middle Tennessee society’s elite. It was named in honor of John Bradley, a Revolutionary War officer who donated the land where the first log school building was erected. Two of its most famous students were James K. Polk, who would become the 11th President of the United States and John C. Bell, who would ironically become his opponent in the election. It was the leadership of Samuel P. Black, who was the first headmaster of Bradley Academy, who drew them to the school. Closed in 1850, when all of its students transferred to Union University, also in Murfreesboro, it sat empty until 1884 when it was transformed into a school for African-American students. 

“Being able to work at Bradley Academy means a lot to me,” explained Stembridge, “as my grandfather and grandmother went to school in the building I now manage.”

A favorite part of the job is to coordinate special events for the community. One of these events is Juneteenth. The celebration was originally created in 2004 by Carolyn Pearson with the help of Delta Sigma Theta and the Board of Directors of the Bradley Academy Historical Association. The event was taken over by the City of Murfreesboro about 2015 or 2016, and Stembridge took over the festival in 2017. In 2021, it became a three-day event. 

“Juneteenth is the celebration of the emancipation of the last group of slaves in Texas after the Civil War,” explained Stembridge. “The very first national celebration took place on June 19, 1866. At our annual celebration, we have storytelling, music, activities for kids, educational events, craft vendors, an author night and U.S. Colored Troup reenactors.”

Stembridge and her team work hard to make the event inclusive for the whole community and all ages. Inclusivity is part of the mission of the museum, and she works hard to make that true of not only Juneteenth, but all of the events and activities that take place in and around the building. 

Another very important part of her job is education, sharing the history of the building and its significance to the community. The initial brick school building was erected in the late 1820s or early 1830s and not only offered space to its own students, but those of Union University as well while their building was being constructed on Main Street. Then, in 1836 during the Small Pox Epidemic and again in 1862 during the Civil War the school was used as a hospital. 

Bradley’s African-American student population outgrew the original building in the early 1900s and the community got together to fund the current building that was constructed in 1917 and opened to its first classes in 1918 for first grade through 12th grade. Then in 1928, Holloway High School Black opened and Bradley became an elementary school.  

“In 1996, remodeling was completed and the building became a museum” said Stembridge. “It was saved by a group of community leaders wishing to preserve the building and its rich history. It still has the original 104-year-old floors, there is a recreation of well-known educator Myrtle Lord’s classroom from 1947, there are displays on African American education in Rutherford County, a display on 250 years of Black experience from slavery through the Civil War and a new display will cover from the Civil Rights Movement to the present day.”

A perk of the job is that she gets to work with Bradley Academy alumni and descendants of past graduates who continue to be involved. There are also many community organizations that have offices there, including Murfreesboro’s branch of the NAACP, the American Legion, African American Heritage of Rutherford County and U.S. Colored Troup #13. Many of these groups have contributed to programming, including the creation of a genealogy program for all ages. The organization just received the necessary software for doing genealogy and classes are being set up in the Fred Beneby Board Room. Beneby served on the original preservation committee. 

With the help of these groups and others, like professors from Middle Tennessee State University, Stembridge is able to work with youth in the community, create tours for visitors of the space and provide a platform for many collections that they have acquired. The building is also available for rental by the general public for parties and events. 

Future plans include becoming more of a multi-cultural center, expansion of the International Festival which they host and to build more of a rapport with the entire community. 

She is a Murfreesboro native, who went to the current Bradley Academy, Central Middle School and Blackman High School. She received a Bachelor’s of Science degree from Middle Tennessee State University in Childhood Development and served as the Director for Extended School at John Pittard Elementary for a number of years. 

When she is not at Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center, she does art instruction on the side through her business Blank Canvas. She is also a freelance event coordinator who has done logistics and project coordination for more than 20 festivals. 

Known for wearing many hats, both literally and figuratively, she does occasionally spend quiet time reading, traveling or going to museums. But creating is her favorite thing to do, be it a piece of art or a new festival. 

“I like to be active in the community,” said Stembridge.

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