BY Katie Shands
Near the intersection of Downs Boulevard and West Main Street in Franklin, an old service station sits empty and a bit forlorn. Just down the road, a brick house with plywood-covered windows awaits demolition. These two structures look like plenty of other properties that have weathered the years, but don’t let appearances fool you. Behind their time-worn facades is a beautiful story of how one family rose above their circumstances and created a legacy of excellence that endures to this day.
Our inspiring tale begins with Monroe Booker, born on November 21, 1921, in Hohenwald, Tennessee. As a young boy, he moved with his family to Franklin, where he spent his formative years studying at Franklin Training School on Natchez Street.
Seventeen days after Monroe turned twenty, the United States declared war on Japan. He was drafted into the Air Force and spent about three years in the South Pacific. After his discharge, he opened Booker Brothers Service Station in 1946 with his brother, William. The business quickly became a fixture in their community.
Monroe wed Mary Pope in 1950, and the couple lived near the service station in the now boarded-up house at 1508 West Main Street. They eventually grew their family to twelve children, all of whom they supported with Monroe’s modest income from the service station.
Monroe and Mary’s formal education went no further than high school, and they were determined to open new doors for their kids. Like so many black families, they had plenty of racial and socioeconomic barriers to overcome, but they did not let anything stand in their way. For example, the Bookers lived just one house away from the city limits, so they paid extra for their children to attend school in Franklin.
Incredibly, all twelve kids attended college—six at Fisk, two at Vanderbilt, and one each at Harvard, Spellman, Tennessee State and Concordia. They went on to establish successful careers in law, social work, civil engineering, banking, broadcasting, teaching and coaching.
Not only did the kids achieve academic excellence, they also shined in athletics. Karen Booker played in the WNBA with the Detroit (now Tulsa) Shock, Utah Starzz and Houston Comets. Barry Booker was a standout basketball player for the Vanderbilt Commodores. In 2017, he was named an “SEC Basketball Legend.”
Monroe and Mary’s exemplary parenting earned them a letter of recognition from former United States president George W. Bush, a write-up in Jet magazine, and many other accolades, but they weren’t in it for the laurels. As Mary said in one of their many interviews, “I just did what the Lord wanted.”
After about fifty years of running the service station, Monroe sold his portion to his brother. William eventually rented the building to Frazier Beech who operated Frazier’s Car Care there. He was also a pastor at Burns Tabernacle. When Frazier’s closed, the property remained vacant until it was recently purchased by Eric Smith of Valley View Builders.
Eric is renovating the space to use as his company’s office, and while his crews were clearing it out, they discovered a vintage Pepsi chest cooler filled to the brim with encyclopedias. Religious materials, such as sermon notes and a Ten Commandments plaque, were also found. These items likely belonged to Frazier, who last occupied the space, but they are a fitting homage to the Bookers and everything they stood for.
Though dust and grime now coat the former Booker Brothers Service Station, the years have not faded Monroe and Mary’s legacy. To borrow a line from a poem penned by Monroe, “Our success or failure lies in our ability to endure.” That is a truth that will always withstand the test of time.