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.
At the beginning of the decade, community schools were widespread, though there was little money and little to offer students beyond the school being local. Consolidations came to improve standards and with them, plenty of protests about the schools leaving the communities.
By the middle of the decade, many of these debates had subsided, with only a few major ones – Tennille’s objection of losing their high school to Sandersville and Oglethorpe versus Montezuma, for example – still on the table.
But there were other crises.
In 1954, Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, was decided. Effectively considered the end of separate but equal racial policies, the battle was just beginning.
It would take encyclopedia volumes to even provide a summary of the inequalities facing black schools before the Minimum Foundation Program transformed the state of Georgia.
Let’s explore some of the issues.
In the Seventy-Sixth and Seventy-Seventh Annual Reports of the Department of Education to the General Assembly of the State of Georgia (printed in 1948), the state admitted some of this was their fault.
“The State Board of Education makes the same allowances for both white and Negro pupils to be transported,” it said. “[H]owever, the state appropriation for transportation has not increased in recent years and this factor has limited the expansion of Negro school transportation.”
In 1948, 98 counties supplied 147 buses for black pupils carrying 10,509 pupils. There were 2,724 white school buses carrying 189,670 pupils.
The Annual Reports did not bother hiding the prejudice of the situation.
“Approximately 75% of the cost of transportation of students in Georgia at the present time must be borne by local funds,” said the Annual Reports from 1948, “and local school officials have been more reluctant to spend local funds on the transportation of Negro students than of white students.”
By June 1950, the situation was some better, according to the Seventy-Eighth and Seventy-Ninth Annual Reports.
There were now 406 buses for black students (to 2,897 white buses). More counties were using the service.
In none, though, were there more black buses than white buses, even in those where the African-American population was higher than that of the white population.
Of the 159 county school systems, 155 had at least one black school.
Of the 155 county school systems with at least one black school, 41 still did not provide a single bus as of June 1950; 25 more provided a single bus. Only one system, Chatham, provided more than 10 (18).
Burke County, which led the state with 60 black schools, had six school buses for black students.
Of the systems that provided no buses for black students, Sumter and Wilkes counties each had 36 African-American schools. Buses were not broken down into county and city systems in the Reports. Including two city schools for Americus, Sumter County provided no buses for black children attending 38 schools.
Morgan County had 32 black schools. Elbert, Mitchell, Oglethorpe and Stewart counties each had 31 schools. Elbert’s number is 32 including Blackwell Memorial in the Elberton system.
Only four of the systems not providing a bus for African-American students were mountainous counties with small populations requiring just one black school. On the flip side, Echols County also had just one black school and provided three buses for its students and Murray County, also in the mountains, provided two buses for its lone black school at Chatsworth.
The Annual Reports from 1950 listed Worth County as having two buses for black students. That was not the case, according to a petition from citizens living in that county, who claimed that one bus and four cars were transporting just 46 African-American students to school.
And not all buses were exactly modern for those counties using them.
The bus to the right was in use in Heard County in 1949. Look At Our Schools printed a picture underneath it of a brand new bus (or at least newer) bus in use in the county.
Heard was likely not an outlier.
(Similar type buses with wooden bodies were being used for white school children as well, but Look At Our Schools said, “Only a few buses of this type are now in use.”)
Some counties were beginning to remedy the situation.
Greene County, which had one black bus as of June 1950, had increased the fleet to eight by October. Taking place at the same time in Greene was a hurried consolidation from 25 schools to nine to appease black citizens who had filed a petition a year earlier. Greene citizens were happy at the moment, but were awaiting more permanent measures that were being suggested under the announced but not yet funded Minimum Foundation Program.
Houston County, another one of the systems with no black school buses in 1950 (for 23 schools), finally added four for the 1951-52 school year.
The four buses were only there to bring seventh grade and older students to Perry Training School.
Some systems waited even longer, however.
It was not until 1956 that Schley County provided a bus for black students. Much smaller and much more primitive means had previously existed.
“Two new buses brought bus transportation to Negro students for the first time and delivery was promised on a third bus before the end of the week,” said The Ellaville Sun.
“These buses, providing transportation for approximately 150 students, replace six station wagons and pickup formerly used to carry pupils to elementary schools in some areas and others to high school in Ellaville.”
Sources: The Atlanta Constitution – Oct. 19, 1950; The Sylvester Local – Jan. 5, 1950; The Houston Home Journal – Aug. 2, 1951; The Ellaville Sun – Sept. 9, 1956; Look At Our Schools! 1949 … As they are today; Seventy-Sixth and Seventy-Seventh Annual Reports of the Department of Education to the General Assembly of the State of Georgia; Seventy-Eighth and Seventy-Ninth Annual Reports of the Department of Education to the General Assembly of the State of Georgia.