From Teacher Resignations to Desegregation: History of Columbus Public Schools (1920 - 1970)
Updated: Aug 25, 2021
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: 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, and The Long and Winding Road: School Desegregation in Columbus, Georgia by Dr. Virginia Causey.
In 1920, Officer Frank Dally reported 568 children (ages four to fourteen) not attending school. The new law requiring children to attend school was placed on the front page of the paper, along with an outline of the fines and other punishment for not complying. Illness and salary issues were also causing many classes to close for lack of teachers. However, even under these circumstances, the board managed to build or add five more schools, raise money for furniture, and request 150,000 for lots and additional buildings. They would soon purchase lots in Linwood, North Highland, and East Highland.
In 1921, a large number of teachers resigned due to lack of raises that had been promised. Miss Edwina Wood (pictured to the right) appeared before the school board, wrote letters, and asked for the mayor’s help. When no help came, she resigned and took a position with the city. Her enthusiasm for good schools was so great that she was included on the School Board very shortly after her resignation.
Mrs. Nunnally Johnson (below) became the second woman to be added to the school board, along with Miss Edwina Wood. Enrollment was up to 6,152 with an average attendance of 93 percent. New agenda items facing the school board in 1924 included a $150,000 bond issue of the building of a stadium for high school games and the selection of Wildwood Park as the new site for the high school. Wynnton and City View (close to Rose Hill) schools were also added to the city schools as the city limits of Columbus were increased. The Free Kindergarten Association also became no longer needed as the public schools were adding these classes.
The new Columbus High School opened September 17, 1926. Set high overlooking the recently drained Wildwood Lake, the building was spacious and well equipped. Modern desks, plumbing, and a large auditorium were welcome not only to school children, but the entire city. The Three Arts League, organized in 1927, used Columbus High School for its productions until the Jordan High School auditorium was built, some years later. The idea for a high school for African American students wouldn’t gain traction until 1927 – two years after the death of William H. Spencer – when a group of Black ministers appealed to the school board. Even then, it took two more years for the Trustees to consider the idea of adding two more grades before convincing voters to fund a Black high school. It would be named after Spencer with George Foster Peabody, the Rosenwald Fund, and Gunby Jordan contributing toward the school’s construction. Spencer High School was originally built on 10th Avenue and 8th Street in 1930 and designed by local architects, E. Oren Smith and James J.W. Biggers, Sr. In line with the benefactors’ philosophy, Spencer High School stressed vocational education, but many students went on to college. Of the 37 young men and women who graduated in 1934, 16 earned undergraduate degrees and eight did post graduate work, not only at local colleges but also Harvard, NYU, Kent State, and the University of Pittsburgh.
During the 1920s, the newer suburbs of Wynnton were booming. The need for an elementary school for the neighborhood children of Weracoba was soon realized and the St. Elmo School was built in 1930. It was designed by Charles F. Hickman in the English Revival style and features an imposing, crenellated Elizabethan entrance set against a massive tile-covered roof. The school would cost $33,359 to construct, and Mr. B.B. Littlejohn served as its first principal. Mr. Littlejohn and his six teachers welcomed 200 students from kindergarten to seventh grade in the fall of 1930.
By 1932, attendance numbers were growing and teacher salaries were continuing to shrink. Teachers were significantly feeling the sting of the Great Depression and their salaries would continue to take hits. School officials were not able to collect book fees from many students, and children and adults were also breaking into schools during this time to steal any item of value. Office equipment and science materials were among the objects most frequently vandalized. Vocational training for both whites and African Americans was growing in popularity. Jordan High School was built in 1936 on a 19-acre lot that was a part of Sherwood Hall. It was to replace the Secondary Industrial School in Waverly Terrace because it had become so successful, and the number of students had outgrown the original two-story building. The new building and equipment cost $416,265 – 45% of which was contributed by the Public Works Administration (PWA) of the Roosevelt Administration. At that time, the school’s name was changed to Jordan Vocational School in honor of G. Gunby Jordan who had not only enthusiastically supported the idea of an industrial high school, but made it happen. The Jordan High School auditorium was almost complete by December 1939. It was the largest such school facility in the area. It was to be rented to music teachers for their recitals, dance studios, concert series, and symphony orchestras.
On Fort Benning at this time, the post also had schooling available for the children of the soldiers. The Children’s School (to the right) was the first permanent school built on Main Post for white children. Built in 1931 on Baltzell Avenue, it was renamed the Patch School in 1959 for Capt. Alexander M. Patch III. The building is now used as a childcare center. The Don C. Faith Elementary School (below) opened in 1952 and was located on the east side of Ingersoll Street. Now gone, the name has been transferred to the Don C. Faith Middle School on the west side of Ingersoll. The school was named for Medal of Honor winner Lt. Col. Don C. Faith.
In 1943, Wynnton School turned 100 years old and Baker High School was built to serve the military families in south Columbus, as well as other Columbus students. It was named for Newton Diehl Baker, the Secretary of War in World War I. The first graduating class was in 1945. By 1964, Baker was the largest school in Georgia with 2,800 students. The "platoon" system was used to accommodate the large numbers. The first classes started at 7:45 am and the second shift started at 8:45 am. Classes were held in the gym, library, and storage rooms.
Crowded conditions at Waverly Terrace School and other schools made transferring of students necessary. The new Superintendent William Henry Shaw led the school board in acquiring eight new sites for schools in 1946. A large enrollment of 8,000 students plus the projected expansion of the city limits in two years made the new locations necessary. Construction for Johnson Elementary School began in 1948. Johnnie Pearl “Onnie” Johnson, mentioned earlier in the email, also founded what later became the PTA in Columbus. The new elementary school would be named for her in 1949. Onnie Johnson was also the mother of journalist, screenplay writer, and film producer, Nunnally Johnson, who is best known for his screenplay of Grapes of Wrath.
Johnson Elementary School under construction in 1948
On January 1, 1950, the Columbus Public Schools and the Muscogee County Schools were merged into an independent school district with fifteen board members. Mr. Walter Alan Richards was elected as the new president. After the merger, plans for a five-year improvement period were released. Dr. Shaw and associate superintendent Nathan Patterson, former superintendent of the county system, and the board worked overtime to sell the city and investors on a bond issue large enough to cover these constructions: 26 new buildings, 12 additions, the Bradley Library (1950), and other construction. These included Carver High School, Radcliff remodeled, Spencer High School addition, and Cusseta Road School. Five one- and two-room schools were combined into Lynch Road School which opened in 1953. An April storm in 1953 demolished Edgewood School and heavily damaged Jordan, Johnson, Fox, Forty-fifth Street, and others. Fifteen schools opened during the 1950 – 1955 period with three more nearly ready and several additions under construction. By 1955 enrollment totals showed nearly 40,000 students.
W.C. Bradley Memorial Library
In 1947, Columbus’ African American residents asked city officials when a public library would be available for their use. Five years later, the Fourth Avenue Library opened as the first dedicated library open to people of color in the Chattahoochee Valley. The Fourth Avenue branch officially opened on January 5, 1953. Centrally located near the Liberty business district, Fifth Avenue School, and the Booker T. Washington public housing complex, the building became a community center for Columbus’ African American population, led for nearly 30 years by beloved head librarian Mildred Terry. In 1981, it was renamed Mildred L. Terry Library in honor of its first Librarian. The original building was demolished to give way to the new Mildred L. Terry branch, which opened on June 2, 2009.
Mildred L. Terry
George Washington Carver High School first opened its doors as a junior high school in the fall of 1954. This modern physical plant erected to meet the individual needs of the students in the Carver Heights area and in outlying communities. Mr. S. P. Charleston became principal of a staff of fifteen teachers and a student body of three hundred and seventy-nine students. The school had only two grades, seventh and eighth. The ninth grade was added in September 1956 and a grade was added each year until the school became a high school. June 7, 1963, marked the first graduation, which was held at the Municipal Auditorium. By 1964, George Washington Carver High School opened her doors to more than fourteen hundred students and approximately sixty teachers.
Columbus College officially opened as a unit of the University System of Georgia in September 1958. Mr. Shaw, the Muscogee County School District, and other citizens were greatly responsible for the founding of the college. The Muscogee County School District purchased the Shannon Hosiery Mill on Talbotton Road for $250,000. The building was renovated and became a short-term home for the new junior college, Columbus College. Today, Hannan Academy is located on the site where the old mill stood.
Like many southern school districts, the Muscogee County School District’s response to the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, which mandated an end to “separate by equal” schools, had been to upgrade and expand some of the facilities for African American children. But, increasing civil rights activism and federal pressure across the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s made Columbus’ inaction more obvious. In July 1963, a group of Black youths staged a “read-in” in the white public library operated by the school district. The Board of Education immediately formed a Special Committee on Desegregation, and at its July meeting desegregated the public libraries. Superintendent William H. Shaw desegregated principals’ meetings in August and in September, the board unanimously approved a freedom of choice plan to desegregate the schools one grade per year, starting with the twelfth grade in September 1964. Baker High School was first integrated in 1963/1964 by four young women from Carver High School; however, they did not complete the school year. The following year, African American students Robert Leonard and Larry Smith, were admitted.
Superintendent William H. Shaw (1945 - 1973)
In January 1964, the NAACP filed a lawsuit Lockett v. the Board of Education of Muscogee School District asserting that the district maintained an inferior school system for African Americans. Superintendent Dr. William Henry Shaw testified that segregation was a "long and universal custom." Nevertheless, in September 1968, the MCSD ruled that all grades were to be integrated through freedom of choice. When the federal court case U. S. v. Jefferson County Board of Education ruled that teaching staffs must also be integrated, the district agreed to assign at least two teachers who would be in the racial minority at every school. By 1970, under the freedom of choice plan, 27 of 67 schools in the district remained segregated. Under the threat of a cutoff of $1.8 million in federal funds, the school district integrated the schools in 1971. Next Week: We will venture one last week into the history of the school district. This will include more information about the desegregation of our school system and several new high schools that will come on board – Kendrick (1965), Hardaway (1965), Shaw (1978), and Northside (2002). 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