Miller County was once a large high school

Miller County is the epitome of a Class A public school in the Georgia High School Association.

The sole high school in a county whose population the United States census estimates at a hair under 6,000 in 2016, Miller personifies rural Georgia. A quick scan of the city via Google Maps shows all the staples – a Hardee’s and a Dollar General.

Miller’s county seat is Colquitt. Its estimated population in 2016 was 1,910. Colquitt is most famous these days for Swamp Gravy, which dubs itself as “Georgia’s Official Folk-Life Play” and is rooted in local lore. Famous citizens are equally varied, ranging from former football player Charles Grant to one-time Lieutenant Governor Peter Zack Geer.

Partially because of Grant, Miller County High is mostly known as a football town.

Since 1978, every senior class has been to state at least once, peaking with the semifinals in 1999. Don Calloway was named Offensive Player of the Year in Class A by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution off that team and merited Player of the Year from the Associated Press.

Before those days, however, Miller County High was once a basketball mecca. The Lady Pirates won five state championships in the GHSA: 1946, 1960, 1977, 1979 and 1980. Hoops have dried up in the system. Neither Miller team has been to state since 2011 and the last time either girls or boys saw as deep as the quarterfinals was 1980.

Looking back at the Pirates’ old appearances in state basketball, it is noticeable that the biggest Miller has ever been was Class AA.

Class AA is certainly not a classification for big schools now, but at one time it was. From 1950-56, it was the state’s largest and from the fall of 1956 until 1978, AA was the second largest size for high schools in the state.

Oddly, the four years Miller spent in AA were four in which it was second largest. It was also Class A at the time it was the state’s second largest division.

During the 1940s, the Miller County Liberal, the local newspaper, carried two mottoes as part of its banner. One, it still retains: Pull For Colquitt or Pull Out.

The other was: Watch Colquitt Grow the Leading City of Southwest Georgia.

1946-03-22 Miller County Liberal (banner)
A 1946 edition of the Miller County Liberal with its dual slogans.

Few would argue that Colquitt actually grew into the leading city of Southwest Georgia. But with that line was optimism and in the 1950s, a school system in a classification among Georgia’s biggest.

The Miller County Liberal was actually a tad depressed during the early fall of 1949.

“With the number of students increasing like Kudzu,” it said, “MCHS faces the glum certainty of being kicked upstairs into “AA” competition next year where such schools as those in Albany, Savannah, Macon, Columbus and Atlanta must be met on even ground.”

So what happened to Miller County’s star?

In terms of school system numbers, actually not very much.

When the Liberal bemoaned the AA possibility, Miller County was just a Class B school. It had just been moved up to A, as was announced in early October 1949 at a faculty meeting.

In 1950, AA became the state’s newest classification. Prior to then for four-year high schools, there had been just three divisions – C, B and the GIAA, the latter unofficially referred to as Class A and nearly entirely consisting of Savannah, Macon, Columbus and Atlanta schools. The ones Miller feared.

A month prior to being moved to Class A, Miller County High principal Percy Jones called the school the “fourth largest high school in southwest Georgia.”

MCHS’ attendance was given as 500 students in October; “[D]ouble the enrollment of Bainbridge High School,” the Liberal said. With it in Class A were to be Americus, Cairo, Thomasville, Valdosta and Waycross.

The attendance number for Miller feels a bit high. Two years later, the GHSA gave it at 418 when new regions were announced. Still Miller was bursting at the seams in April 1950, when it invited a survey crew to look the situation over and make suggestions.

And still, it was a large high school for its division, Region 1-A. At 418 students, Miller was larger than Americus, Cordele and Thomasville. Bainbridge was on its way to catching up, listed at 327. Tifton, Valdosta, Waycross and Cook were larger.

Cook and Miller had a major similarity and one that explains why Miller was so large compared to others. Both were early consolidations and there had not been any other white high schools in either county in more than 20 years (Cook had undergone a name change in 1949 from Sparks-Adel, but no other white high school existed in the county at the time).

A decade later, Public High School Data pegged Miller County High’s average daily attendance at 308. The GHSA had Miller at 339 students for its 1966-68 reclassification and Public High School Data had it with an average daily attendance of 336 in 1967-68, but the accuracy of 308 in 1961-62 cannot be guaranteed.

The reason for a 100-student decline is unknown, but could simply be what happened in many other rural areas. Families were leaving the farms for bigger cities.

Bainbridge, the school the Liberal said was half MCHS’ size in 1949, was up to 579 students. It grew even more within a few years, as the last remaining Decatur County rural white schools (Climax, West Bainbridge and Attapulgus) were consolidated into it.

There was another shift that affected Miller’s fortunes, those of classifications themselves.

When Miller went from B to A for the 1950-51 school year, Class C was for schools with less than 125 pupils (and football teams at schools with less than 200 pupils), Class B was for 125-300, A for 300-650 and AA for 650 and larger.

In 1959-60, those had been revised to less than 200 in C, 200-300 in B, 300-400 in A, 400-650 in AA and 650+ in AAA. They further shifted a year later to under 250 in C, 250-350 in B, 350-500 in A, 500-750 in AA and 750+ in AA.

Miller County High’s 308 students given in 1961-62 was good enough for Class A in 1950 and 1959 (Miller was playing in AA in 1959, possibly playing up), but 308 in 1960 dropped it to Class B.

Miller had a final blow in 1970 to any attempts to keep up with its growing neighbors. Total integration provided boosts for the attendances many formerly all-white institutions. Bethel High in Colquitt, however, was one of the smaller black high schools, with no reported average daily attendance topping 200.

With the total integration of Bethel, MCHS moved back up to Class A – a size it had not been since the 1959-60 school year – but fell back to Class B in 1976. They were pushed to Class A again in 1978 after the GHSA eliminated Class B.

Miller seems stuck in Class A now. The 2017-18 Georgia High School Association Constitution and By-Laws gave its average daily attendance as 275.

Colquitt’s chance to become the leading city in Southwest Georgia seems a little muffled now, but for a few brief years, it certainly seemed possible.

Sources: Miller County Liberal – Sept. 9, 1949, Oct. 7, 1949, April 21, 1950; The Daily Tifton Gazette – Oct. 24, 1951; The Atlanta Constitution – Nov. 18, 1965; Georgia High School Association Constitution and By-Laws[,] District and State Meets 1950-51, Georgia High School Association Constitution and By-Laws[,] District and State Meets 1959-60, Georgia High School Association Constitution and By-Laws[,] District and State Meets 1961-62;  Georgia High School Association Constitution and By-Laws, 2017-18; Public High School Data – 1961-62, 1967-68.

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