Brewton School saga , Part I: Brewton and her school

The Minimum Foundation Program and the State School Building Authority are frequently referenced in this blog.

The combination of the two programs were among the biggest influences in education, along with, but not limited to, free textbooks, the Quality Basic Education Act and the train of technology in its various forms.

Georgia’s plans in the 1950s to streamline its education, to get the most bang for its bucks, changed the fabric of schools, especially at the high school level.

Whereas states like Texas are seemingly content to maintain tiny high schools – Dave Campbell’s Texas Football was able to rattle off 10 high schools in 2016 with enrollments of 35 or less playing high school football at some level  – Georgia frowned upon that. In 1953, Tift County’s Omega High lost its accreditation from the state because it had fewer than 60 students in its top four grades. Public high schools in Georgia have only gotten bigger since.

In the 1950s, schools consolidated at a rapid pace, into existing buildings that had enough room; into existing buildings with additions; or into completely new buildings because of a much larger student load and/or the inadequacy of the already existing buildings.

The Brewton School saga involved the third of these types of building projects. The State Board of Education and the Laurens County Board of Education decided to consolidate Brewton’s students into the new East Laurens school building.

But Brewton had a decent school building and no one wanted to see it go to waste. Officials planned on solving more consolidation with it, namely the consolidation of a section of Laurens County’s black students.

This plan went haywire.

Brewton School became an albatross for the state and county. The controversy was never solved. There were no happy endings, only cuts that led to scars with the passage of time.

Not all the twists and turns of the Brewton School controversy have been unveiled. This multi-part history is the best that is known at the moment, coming from multiple sources of the era.

Laurens County is the third largest county in Georgia, based on land area. At 813 square miles, it trails only Ware (903) and Burke (831). Laurens is more populated than both of these counties, estimated in 2012 to have 48,000 people and has always had plenty of communities. Outside of Dublin, however, they are not very big. Excepting East Dublin, none seem to have more than 600 people currently.

Ten of these cities, towns and communities have Wikipedia pages. Brewton is not one of these.

Brewton is a railroad town, once a stop on the Wrightsville and Tennille line. Lovett is a few miles to the northeast and Dublin is to the southwest.

Brewton was already on the decline by the time of the school issues. Its decline helped create them.

In 1950, the State Highway Board estimated the town’s size as 109 (that map is labeled as 1940, but its appearance matches that of the remainder of the 1950 county maps series). Also in decline was the Wrightsville and Tennille railroad; its tracks were labeled as abandoned west of Dublin., which has histories of Georgia’s major railroad companies, said the Brewton portion of the route was built by the Dublin and Wrightsville railroad in approximately 1886, which later became part of the Wrightsville and Tennille. Brewton was not labeled on a Rand McNally map of Georgia in 1885, but was there in 1895.

A Brewton school is listed in M.L. Duggan’s 1921 survey of Laurens County schools. It was a four-classroom building and though considered to be in good repair, except for the outdoor toilets. Even with a good building, Brewton was reaching further as $30,000 in bonds had been voted to build a nicer facility. That new school was built in approximately 1922.

1921 - Brewton school
Brewton School, printed in the 1921 Educational Survey of Laurens County, Georgia. A new building replaced it in c. 1922.

Brewton’s new school did not last long. Fire wiped it out January 7, 1927. The Macon Telegraph said it “was considered one of the most modern and completely equipped rural schools in the county.” Fortunately, no students or teachers were injured and some of the equipment was saved, but the $30,000 building was covered by just $20,000 in insurance.

A replacement school was built soon after the blaze. It was likely a nicer building, being described as brick. Bad luck continued.

Brewton School was again destroyed by flames on November 21, 1938. The building was valued at $30,000, but Brewton trustees had purchased only partial insurance coverage.

School continued at Brewton. It is unknown when a new buiding went up, but the area was prosperous enough for the indulgence of six-man football. Laurens County had enough little high schools for its own league, the Oconee. Brewton won the conference crown in 1940 and played for the unofficial six-man state title.

The prosperity soon faded and Brewton’s days as a high school were numbered as soon as Georgia’s school systems began school surveys as part of the Minimum Foundation Program.

In October 1952, the Dublin Courier Herald announced Laurens County schools were eligible for nearly $2 million in new buildings and renovations from the state. Another $435,000 was available in local funds.

For white schools, the Dudley school plant was to get a high school addition. A new school was to go up at Rentz. (The plans for the Rentz school led to a war in southern and western Laurens County about its location and attendance zone that continued for more than a decade. Only when West Laurens High opened in 1971 did the battle finally cease.)

Condor, Brewton and Wilkes were slated to combine into a single, new school. Condor’s building was in bad enough shape for it to be suggested for demolition. Wilkes was to continue as a grammar school after renovations.

Brewton, said the Courier Herald, was going to remodeled and serve as a high school for all the black students “east of the [Oconee] river.” Two other black high schools were planned for the county, one near Dudley and the other south of Dublin, on Georgia Highway 31 (which now also contains the banners of US 319 and US 441). The latter two schools were built under the names of Millville and Mary Fleming, respectively.

At the time of this announcement, Brewton was one of nine white county high schools, which did not include the city system of Dublin. A very large county in size, Laurens clearly believed all of its tiny towns deserved high schools. There was only one white school in the county, Montrose, that was only an elementary.

Laurens officials were hopeful the construction work would begin in 1952, optimism not uncommon in the early days of the building program. Building schools took years and while that took its natural course, the political situation in the county heated.

Rentz was likely the first major holdup in the project. Rentz was initially slated to consolidate Rentz, Cadwell, Cedar Grove and Lowery. The purpose of Rentz changed dramatically over the delays specific to itself. Rentz tied Laurens’ hands for more than a year, with the first case decided in November 1955.

While Rentz dragged on, white students in the eastern half of the county learned what their new school would be called. On November 11, 1955, the new building to combine Wilkes, Condor and Brewton was named East Laurens by the Laurens County Board of Education. Some consolidation had already taken place that fall, with Wilkes’ high school students attending Brewton, creating the temporary high school, Brewton-Wilkes.

East Laurens opened on April 9, 1956, with consolidation of Brewton-Wilkes and Condor happening immediately.

In the article describing the new East Laurens building on the eve of its opening, the Dublin Courier Herald gave updates on the other building projects in the county.

Rentz was still a mess, with the November 1955 decision being appealed. Work was progressing at the now formally-named Millville and Mary Fleming. Eighteen classrooms were being added on to the 10 already existing at Brewton for the new black school there.

All three black schools were set to open in September 1956.

Being such a massive county, Laurens naturally had many black schools prior to consolidation.

The Eightieth and Eighty-First Annual Reports of the Department of Education to the General Assembly of the State of Georgia (1952), said there were 29 black schools in the county. Fourteen were grades 1-7, 15 more held held high school grades, but just one of those was a full high school. Eleven had one teacher only and eight more had but two teachers.

The total number of schools was down from 1950, when there were 41 black schools within Laurens’ borders.

In 1952, 28 of the 29 schools were in frame buildings. Another, its location unknown, was in a stone building. The average value of the buildings were $1,131. The 29 schools had a grand total of 526 library books, an average of 18 per school.

Because of the population and the sheer size of the county, Laurens had major figuring to do in housing black and white students.

The Brewton School must have seemed a godsend to the state and county.

Laurens essentially had no foundation for black schools. All of them were abandoned when the building program finished. Completely new buildings went up at East Laurens and Rentz, but the remaining white schools just needed renovations to modernize. Laurens’ black school building program was from scratch.

Brewton was leaving its school building, one which was better than every black school in the county. It would be simple and it would be cheaper to use a building that otherwise would go unused. Laurens could not do this with Millville or Mary Fleming as no other schools were being abandoned, but it could at Brewton.

It did not work out.

To be continued in Part II.

Sources: Macon Telegraph – Jan. 8, 1927, Nov. 22, 1938; Dublin Courier Herald – Oct. 8, 1952, Aug. 6, 1954, Nov. 5, 1955, Nov. 11, 1955, April 6, 1956; The Daily Tifton Gazette – Aug. 5, 1953; Seventy-Eighth and Seventy-Ninth Annual Reports of the Department of Education to the General Assembly of the State of Georgia; Educational Survey of Laurens County, Georgia; Eightieth and Eighty-First Annual Reports of the Department of Education to the General Assembly of the State of Georgia; Educational Survey of Laurens County, Georgia; Georgia Educational Directory 1951-52, 1956-57.

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