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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

Expansion and Growth in the Columbus Public School System (1880 - 1920)

In August, Historic Columbus will be celebrating our community's educational history from the beginnings of Columbus in 1828 until more recent times. We will also highlight even more of our city's schools through our Facebook and Instagram posts during the week. Please check us out on social media - @historiccolumbusga on Instagram and Historic Columbus on Facebook These books have been great resources for this Spotlight: Columbus by David Owings; Columbus, Georgia in Vintage Postcards by Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr.; Columbus on the Chattahoochee by Etta Blanchard Worsley; A History of Public Education in Muscogee County and the City of Columbus, Georgia 1828 - 1976 by Dr. Katherine H. Mahan and William C. Woodall; and Red Clay, White Water and Blues by Dr. Virginia Causey.


The 1880s decade was a period of marked expansion in the Columbus Public School system, both in number of school buildings and in the quality of the structures. The Rose Hill and North Highlands areas were both annexed to the city and provisions were made for this added school population by buying an existing academy on Rose Hill and establishing a school on Twenty-Eighth Street, North Highlands. The first modern school building in the system came into being when the Board of Trustees erected a two-story brick structure at the northeast corner of Second Avenue and Tenth Street – what became known as the Tenth Street School (pictured below). Improved methods of teaching and the range of instruction also showed steady progress at this time.

In May of 1882, there was a petition from 160 African American citizens asking that the grades of their schools be raised a year, giving a total of nine grades. The issue was taken before City Council with the additional explanation that there was not enough room in the schools and that 100 children had been refused admittance. An additional story onto the Sixth Avenue school building was the suggested solution. By 1885, there were a total of 848 African American children attending the Sixth Avenue School and Claflin. High Uptown received its first public elementary school in 1893. The Sixteenth Street School was originally designed by Atlanta architect Gottfried Norman. The name of the school changed in 1951 to the Woodall School. It has been home to the House of Mercy for many years.

On April 13, 1869, a committee was created to report on the advisability of a high school. The Columbus High School was opened on a firm, enduring basis in the fall of 1891, as a permanent part of the public school system. Its first class graduated in June 1892, and since then there has been no break in the continuity of this institution. Columbus High School (first image) opened in a new building in 1898 on the southwest corner of Veterans Parkway and 11th Street. It was the first public high school for white students in Columbus. Designed by the Lockwood Brothers, this two-story brick building served as the high school until 1926 when the present-day Columbus High School opened on Cherokee Avenue. The Rose Hill School (second image), a public elementary school for white children, had been located in a rented building for almost twenty years. By 1900, the school board approved a new building be constructed. It was designed by T.W. Smith.

Industrial education was also beginning to show its relevance and need within the school system at the turn of the century. In 1901, a committee reported to city officials that a school be established for workers' children with more hand than book work. A building was secured on the corner of 1st Avenue and 18th Street, which had been a factory boarding house and 173 pupils were enrolled. Some academic subjects were taught though the greatest emphasis was on industrial training. Average age in day session was 10 years old, though the night school had all ages. George Foster Peabody had a large hand in this establishment.

The former J.B. Kimball home on the brow of the hill on 2nd Avenue, North Highlands, an impressive Neo-Classical two-story structure was offered at $15,000 as the new home for the Primary Industrial School. The Board offered S.T. Whittaker $1,000 for the Kimball property and it was accepted. The property fronted 270 feet on 2nd Avenue and extended through to 3rd Avenue. In 1912, the name of the school was changed to North Highlands School, as the curriculum became more standardized. Two years later, additional property was bought adjacent to the school and a brick building erected. This new school was named McIlhenny Grammar School. Primary Industrial was losing its distinguishing features as industrial, adding more academic subjects to the curriculum.

Pictured is the 1925 McIlhenny Ball Team – thanks to HCF Instagram follower, Weston Mobley. His great-grandfather, standing second from left in the sweater, was Ezell Stuart and he grew up on Bradley Circle. Ezell dropped out of school the year after this picture was taken to be a sweeper at the Eagle & Phenix Mill. He worked his way up and was still working there before WW II. Following the war, he became an electrician and started Stuart Electric Company about 1950.

In 1906, under the administration of Carlton B. Gibson as Superintendent of Schools an Industrial High School was founded, the first of its kind in the United States which resulted in nationwide publicity and duplication. From the beginning of his term, Superintendent Gibson had interested himself in the education of mill children, as the mill-operative element in Columbus comprised about one-fourth of the city's white population. With no compulsory school law at that time, few of these children attended any schools, and when they did, "less than five per cent continued in school after they were old enough to work in the cotton mills." Superintendent Gibson also found a partner in this industrial endeavor in G. Gunby Jordan, then President of the School Board and then owner/President of the Eagle and Phenix Mill. Gunby Jordan worked on his end within the mill to provide free kindergarten for hundreds of children who were either dinner-toters or worked in the mill itself. In 1903, he opened two branches in Alabama – one in Phenix City and one in Girard – where most of the workers were living. The schools operated under the auspices of the Columbus Free Kindergarten Association.

In 1904, G. Gunby Jordan deeded the “Waverly Farm” to the Jordan Company to develop the neighborhood of Waverly Terrace. The first houses were built in 1906, and the building continued until the final lot was sold in 1929. The homes were built for upper middle-class families who wanted easy access to downtown by street cars. In the center of the neighborhood stands the Secondary Industrial School. It was proposed in 1904 by Superintendent Gibson and it is regarded as the nation’s first public coeducational industrial high school. G. Gunby Jordan and his son R.C. Jordan donated the land and were instrumental in developing the school. Designed by the Atlanta firm of J.W. Golucke, the building is of monumental style and scale. Using brick and stone to illustrate the Neo-Classical details, this architectural style was popular for public buildings at the turn of the nineteenth century. Golucke was best known for designing twenty courthouses in Georgia. This structure represents one of his few designs that is not a courthouse. The school was centrally located in Waverly Terrace. The name changed to Columbus Industrial High School in 1912 and again in 1939 to Columbus Junior High when the industrial programming moved to the new Jordan High School. Today, the building has been renovated and expanded upon for a new use as an assisted living facility.

The Columbus Industrial School was developed for African Americans as a part of the new Fifth Avenue School. It included a blacksmith and leather shop to train African American students interested in industrial education. The school was built in 1908 and within one year, the industrial components of the school were in operation.

Also happening during this same period was a growth in the number of private schools, many of which were operating in private homes. Two examples of these types of schools are the Columbus Seminary and Lorena Hall. Kate, Rosa, and Jessie Synder opened up two private schools for girls. The three of them together started the Columbus Seminary in 1909 in the Phelps Home on 11th Street and then it moved to the William Beach House (pictured below) on 12th Street and 5th Avenue. Kate and Rosa stayed at the Columbus Seminary – where Rosa would be principal.

In 1911, Jessie left and started her own select school for girls in the sister’s family home at 1133 2nd Avenue, and she called it Lorena Hall after their mother. By 1918, it was listed as one of the best southern private schools in the United States and had an enrollment of 80 students. Lorena Hall had a short run – just 14 years, and by 1925, the school was closed, and the house was turned into apartments. The Columbus Seminary also had the same fate about the same time.

The arts were also just as important in Columbus at the turn of the twentieth century as they are today. George W. Chase was from New York and a graduate of Howard College. George and his family decided to settle in Columbus, taking up his father's profession of music. George was a band leader in the Confederate Army and was considered one of the best. It was at one time attached to General Benning's brigade. It also followed Stonewall Jackson on many of his marches. At the end of the Civil War, George returned to Columbus and resumed the teaching of music, being connected for a while with the Columbus Female College (on the southeast corner of 3rd Avenue and 15th Street) as the director of its music department. George Chase founded the Chase Conservatory of Music in 1891 and was its first president. The school was located at 220 10th Street. Beginning with limited enrollment the institution grew and broadened in its work until it became one of the top recognized musical institutions of the Southeast. By 1900, the curriculum was fully established with primary, intermediate, and collegiate levels of study. The school offered teaching certificates, diplomas, and graduate diplomas. By 1904, the conservatory moves into its spacious brand-new building on 10th Street and Third Avenue. They were presenting regular recitals and a lecture series of visiting artists. The faculty was chosen with great care with the teachers usually having a diploma from a New England Conservatory. Over the years, George gave up the management of the school to his sons Louis and George E. Chase who became its president and secretary, respectively. The school continued to graduate excellent musicians through the Depression, but with the death of both sons by 1942, the conservatory came to an end. The building stood for another 27 years until it was demolished in 1969 for a parking lot.

Also happening in 1907 was the construction of a new public library. Mayor Lucius H. Chappell favored locating the new building on Mott’s Green at the upper end of Broadway. This met with unanimous approval. The Commons Commissioners were asked to set aside the entire site for library and park purposes, which was done. The proposed building cost 30,000, all of which was donated by Mr. Andrew Carnegie.

Following the resignation of Carlton Gibson as Superintendent of Public Schools, Dr. Roland B. Daniel of Valdosta, Georgia was elected to serve. Dr. Daniel remained in the position from 1906 until 1937. In addition to his activities in school administration, he was active in the Rotary Club and he was a partner in the development of the Morningside Subdivision, north of Columbus. He also published a bulletin on vocational education, served as Chairman of the Food Rationing Board during World War II, and was an active member of St. Paul's Methodist Church. R.B. Daniel was also the chairman of the Committee on Education for the development of Columbus College (now Columbus State University).

As 1916 drew to a close the city population was 20,554 with 4,439 in schools. Expenses amounted to $97,652.61 with a half million-dollar property value listed. The was years brought on changes, both those for the better and those which created hardships. Male teachers and students left the classrooms in fairly large numbers. Inflation raised prices without a corresponding raise for salaries and plant operation. The influenza epidemic struck Columbus in 1918 and 1919. On the plus side, compulsory attendance for all children ages eight through fourteen was passed by the Georgia Legislature and thus, it became illegal for these children not to be in school. Federal funds also began to play an important role in Columbus schools at this time. Because of the largest enrollment ever in 1919, many of the schools were overcrowded again, especially those in the mill districts. Fort Benning children were also granted permission to attend Columbus schools until suitable buildings could be erected on base. Graduation on June 5, 1919, saw 42 girls and 5 boys receive a diploma at the Springer Opera House. African Americans did not have high school level education yet. Next Week: We will continue to explore the growth of schools in Columbus with the construction of the St. Elmo School, Jordan High School, Baker High School, and Spencer High School. We will also begin to highlight how our community dealt with the integration of the schools. If you aren't already a member, we hope you will join us! I also want to encourage you to follow Historic Columbus on Facebook and Instagram for more posts on our community's history. Thank you all for your continued support of Historic Columbus! Elizabeth B. Walden Executive Director

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