For every town, a high school (or woes of Wilcox County)

“It looks to me that if there was ever a school system ripe for consolidation, it’s yours.”
David Rice, State Board of Education, to Wilcox County officials, March 1963

In 2016, Wilcox County, Georgia, was estimated to have a grand total of 8,761 citizens. The number was a bit smaller just over 50 years ago. Census records show Wilcox with 7,905 citizens in 1960.

The Wilcox County Patriots currently compete in Class A athletics, the smallest in the Georgia High School Association. There are only two years that Wilcox has ever been above Class A. After GHSA restructuring in 1978, in which Class B was eliminated, the school jumped to AA. It was A again in 1980 and Class A is where it has been since.

All Wilcox County public high school students attend Wilcox County High. There are no private schools within Wilcox’s borders and probably no more than a handful or two attend private schools elsewhere.

With all of Wilcox in Class A, it would seem natural that it was an early consolidation because of its lack of students. Fellow Class A school Lanier County did not entertain another white high school beyond the early 1920s. Irwin County finished consolidating its white high schools in 1952. Turner County was complete in 1957. It had only two white high schools to consolidate at that time.

Then the following might be odd.

Wilcox County had to be forced by the state of Georgia to consolidate its white high schools. In 1963, it had four of them, plus a segregated high school, Wilcox County Training (which changed its name to Excelsior in 1963).

Wilcox was not the only county school system in trouble with the state in 1963. Many others were as well, with the case of Surrency’s schools covered in a previous entry. But while not the only one, Wilcox had the most high schools affected.

At the end of the 1940s, Wilcox was not loaded with riches.

Pitts School burned in 1940. In December 1949, it was still making do. Pitts and Abbeville were looking for gymnasiums. The gyms were being handled with local fundraising efforts.

Then the Minimum Foundation Program was approved in 1951 and Wilcox County was ready to bring its program up-to-date.

A school survey was made in late 1951, which recommended that most white high schools (Pitts, Pineview, Rochelle) be combined at Rochelle. Abbeville was also a possibility for high school consolidation.

Pitts School
Pitts School, 2017

Abbeville had a good building, it said, but was not an “efficient high school,” with a small attendance suggested as the main issue in this department. If Abbeville did become efficient, the plant should be upgraded.

Besides white schools, the committee said three sites should exist for black students: Abbeville, Rochelle and Pineview.

Wilcox accepted the school survey report in April 1952.

Before construction could begin, the county faced a double tragedy. Pineview’s white and black school buildings burned on consecutive nights in February 1954. The fires were unrelated and believed accidental.

Insurance for the white Pineview school was set at $18,000 and a new grammar building had been in the works under the State School Building Authority. That was in addition to two wooden buildings spared by the flames.

No details were given on the black school structure burned, other than the fire did not spread to nearby Mt. Beulah Church (which still exists). Wilcox officials were hopeful of getting a new structure built by the state. School did continue for black students of George A. Hill Elementary, but its location has not been determined. Nor did they get a new building from the state. In 1963, black citizens asked for a new building as the one they were using as inadequate.

A first round of bids for building were rejected in August 1954. A second round went through a month later. The buildings were likely opened in 1956, the year Wilcox went from eight black schools to three.

Trouble was always on the horizon for Wilcox. The survey it accepted in 1952 was for a combined high school. Rochelle even renamed itself Wilcox Central after state funds remodeled its building.

Pineview lost its high school accreditation in approximately 1959, based on editions of the Georgia Educational Directory. In 1962, it wanted it back and made improvements to the building to try and do so. It did not get it.

A year later, the state came calling. The county school system had to give a report on why it still had four small white high schools. Attendance at these schools were given as 112 at Wilcox Central, 97 at Abbeville, 78 in Pitts and 61 at Pineview.

Before the meeting, one Board of Education member said to The Wilcox County Chronicle they wanted to consolidate the high schools, but citizens “consistently refused to do so.”

The Board had tried in 1960 to consolidate Pitts with Wilcox Central. All it was able to accomplish was to bus students from Pitts and Pineview, who wanted to go to Rochelle, which unlike both, was accredited. There was not enough interest in the bus at Pitts and it was stopped. It was still available in Pineview in 1963. Pitts was later reaccredited.

These actions were not good enough for the state.

Wilcox was among 12 systems who had to explain to the State Board of Education why it accepted money on the grounds of consolidation and then did not consolidate.

State Board chairman James S. Peters told the county board, “You’ve not kept faith with the board. You came up here and got a half million dollars and said you were going to consolidate.”

Local superintendent J.L. Faircloth talked about his communities and how consolidation had been protested. That drew a response from State Board member Tom Nesbitt, who happened to be from neighboring Crisp County. Nesbitt said the Wilcoxians were “narrow-minded.”

Even with its disgust with Wilcox, the Georgia was still willing to offer the system funds to consolidate high schools. The state offered $300,000. The county was asked to provide about $250,000 more in a local bond issue.

On April 16, 1963, an order of high school consolidation was handed down by the state. The state did clarify one thing. Consolidation at the high school level was only ordered for Wilcox Central, Pineview and Pitts. Abbeville had been merely suggested in the 1951 report. While not required, the state said Wilcox should consider consolidating it, too.

Faircloth began pushing consolidation harder. In an editorial published in the May 2, 1963 Wilcox County Chronicle, he urged citizens to accept consolidation “without delay” in order to get a new building started as soon as possible.

“I urge you to ponder this recommendation carefully,” said Faircloth. “[L]et’s embark upon a deliberate planned course of action to bring equal educational opportunities within our own county. Let’s do the job entrusted to us – the inevitable. Let us not let our schools and our school children continue to be exploited by so many divergent forces. We need to exert leadership.”

A bond election was asked.

Before it took place, Wilcox Central was damaged by a tornado in May, which ripped off a portion of the roof and flooded the auditorium. The flood claimed two pianos, a television and stage curtains.

Wilcox decided to delay a decision on consolidation, asking to wait for a new school to first be built. State superintendent Dr. Claude Purcell denied the request. Wilcox accepted the state order that summer.

Pitts begged the county to reconsider. They refused. Some students wanted instead to go to Crisp County. They were denied releases.

Pitts did not give up and did get a temporary reprieve in September when a restraining order was granted, stopping consolidation. Pineview apparently wanted no part of the suit and properly sent their high school children to Wilcox Central. The Pitts victory was temporary when order was lifted September 21. Seventy-eight students then reported to Rochelle.

The bond election was finally held and approved. A site was selected by May and though it was not ready for 1964-65, it was supposed to open in 1965-66 (construction had still not started in August 1966).

Though Abbeville was left out of the 1963 directive, Wilcox County voted to consolidate it in April 1965, effective for the upcoming school year. Pineview Elementary was closed as well, only two years after the high school shuttered.

One more change was announced in August. George A. Hill Elementary in Pineview also closed. It probably never had much in the way of facilities in the 11 years since the fire.

Wilcox Central changed its name to Wilcox County High in 1965 or 1966, either with Abbeville coming in or the opening of the new high school.

The rural elementary schools of Wilcox County lasted until approximately 1993. Georgia was applying pressure statewide to eliminate these schools. After total integration, these students had bee consolidated into three buildings in Rochelle, one of which was likely the old Excelsior building (identical phone numbers). A new address and phone number were given in the state’s 2000-01 directory of schools.

Building status:

George A. Hill Elementary (Pineview) – Its location is unknown and the building was not retained by the school system after its 1965 consolidation.

Neapolis Street Elementary (Abbeville) – Not mentioned above, but it was a segregated school integrated/consolidated in c. 1968. It is currently New Beginnings, a healthcare and rehab facility.

Excelsior High (Rochelle) – Closed as a high school in 1970, it became an elementary school until c. 2000. Most of the buildings have since been demolished.

Abbeville High – Still standing, now home to the Neeman-Mathews Auditorium. Closed as a high school in 1965 and as an elementary in c. 1993.

Pineview High – Closed as a high school in 1963 and as an elementary in 1965. Occupied as Crossview Care Center.

Pitts High – Decaying, but still standing. The gym, built behind the school, remains impressive.

Wilcox Central (Rochelle) – Its location has also not been determined. It was not retained after total integration in 1970, a likely indicator the building was not in good shape.

Wilcox County High (Rochelle) – Still open.

Sources: The Abbeville Chronicle – Dec. 15, 1949, Mar. 2, 1950, Nov. 8, 1951, Apr. 10, 1952; Wilcox County Chronicle – Feb. 18, 1954, Sept. 2, 1954, Oct. 7, 1954, Mar. 22, 1962, Mar. 7, 1963, Mar. 28, 1963, Apr. 4, 1963, Apr. 18, 1963, May 2, 1963, May 9, 1963, May 16, 1963, May 23, 1963, June 6, 1963, July 4, 1963, Aug. 15, 1963, Sept. 5, 1963, Sept. 19, 1963, Sept. 26, 1963, May 14, 1964, Sept. 10, 1964, Apr. 8, 1965, Aug. 19, 1965, Aug. 4, 1966; Hawkinsville Dispatch – Feb. 24, 1954; Columbus Daily Enquirer – Jan. 9, 1940.

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