One of the most iconic images of historic American education is that of the country schoolhouse. A one-room fixture, it represented education and it represented communities.
One-room schools are rare these days. Florida closed its last one, Duette Elementary, in 2016. Minnesota still has one, Angle Inlet, located in a section of the state only accessible by roads in Canada.
Georgia, generally being easily accessible and communities located close enough to towns of some size, began weeding theirs out as soon as possible. By 1960, they were all but extinct.
Dr. B.D. Perry school opened in 1958 in Laurens County, six years after Laurens County’s school building program began. It opened two years after black students in eastern Laurens County were denied use of Brewton School.
Brewton School had been a white school building, but Laurens officials with state approval planned on remodeling it and enlarging it for use by black students. Brewton’s white students were going to be abandoning the building for the new East Laurens High, an all-grades building that opened in April 1956.
Despite Brewton’s updates being 90 percent complete, builders were forced to stop. Part of one wing was being built on private property. Local Brewtonians, who admitted they did not want black students in that school, now had their wish.
When East Laurens opened in April 1956, all school children from Brewton, plus all the high school students from Condor and Wilkes moved into the new building. Wilkes’ high school had combined with Brewton at the start of the 1955-56 school year, a consolidation known as Brewton-Wilkes High.
Laurens County was still in the middle of a building program and black schools were being erected at Dudley (Millville) and a few miles south of Dublin (Mary Fleming). With Brewton now vacated, work could also finish on the building there, which was being renovated and remodeled for a third all-grades black school.
The location of another white high school in the Rentz area had been debated some time, with one court case decided and its appeal hanging in the balance.
Rentz, however, was joined by a newer and bigger problem in Laurens County: Brewton.
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.
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.
In preparing for updates for the Minimum Foundation Program in the 1950s, nearly all Georgia school systems prepared a survey of school needs. These alerted the systems, citizens and state as to the deficiencies within the schools.
The surveys were a massive undertaking and it took more than a decade for all the associated building projects to be completed.
These were not the first surveys ever to be done. Nearly 40 years earlier, a series of them were done by Mell L. Duggan, Georgia’s Rural School Agent.
Starting with Rabun County in 1914, for the next 10 years, Duggan was essentially a one-man crusade visiting schools and making suggestions as to how rural counties could improve the education of their children.
“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.
When Georgia wanted to overhaul its public schools in the 1950s, it unveiled the Minimum Foundation Program.
The program worked for both state and school systems. School systems got much needed money to upgrade and in exchange, the state got systems to agree to its conditions. Conditions were for equalization of white and black facilities, certain acreage and location of schools and if impartial surveys indicated that a school was small and losing population, there was a good chance Georgia would decree it be closed and consolidate with another.
In some cases, this led to a battle. Rural schools, especially high schools, were occasionally hesitant to lose their status. Systems like Washington County and Elbert County/Elberton city were late to start building programs because of wars over small high schools.
Others readily accepted Georgia’s offer of money and agreed to consolidate, but ultimately did not.
Ten years later, Georgia was not happy with the stragglers.