(When the Muscogee County School District celebrated its 50th anniversary as a unified system in 2000, I wrote this article in the Ledger-Enquirer to explain how two became one paving the way for the city and county governments to become the first consolidated government in the state.)
They shared the same red clay and the same old courthouse, but 50 years ago the distance between the Columbus and Muscogee County schools was measured in more than miles.
City schools were built of brick and had indoor plumbing. County schools had a single room and a pot-bellied stove stoked every morning with wood that kids brought in from outside. City schools were solvent. County schools were near bankruptcy. City schools had playgrounds, libraries and telephones. County schools did not.
Fifty years later, with a single school district educating local youth, it’s hard to imagine the division or the differences in the separately operated systems. But in 1950, they were apparent. That was the year the Muscogee County School District was created, growing out of a merger of two systems that dated back to 1871. The referendum in 1949 created Georgia’s first consolidated school system.
Half a century later, it sounds simple and logical. At the time, it was neither.
Post-war Columbus was a city of change. A citizens planning committee, even before World War II was over, had looked into ways to modernize the city. School consolidation was on their list, though it was anything but a new idea, having failed more than once in the past.
Only now it was a different city.
In 1948, the city had annexed a five-square mile block of the county, taking away much more than land. With it went $7 million in property. Overnight, $100,000 was taken from the tax base of the floundering county schools. By 1949, the county had 28 percent of the students and 15 percent of the wealth.
“The only salvation for the county system is merger,” county superintendent Nathan Patterson said, predicting cuts between 35 and 50 percent across the board in 1950.
Even before annexation, the system was in shambles. Seven of the nine white schools in the county used pot-bellied stoves as did the 16 black schools. Patterson said it would take $2.3 million to bring the system up to standards.
“This would not make us outstanding, just bring us up to standard,” he said.
With 25 schools scattered outside the central city, maintenance was impossible. The health department routinely wrote up school cafeterias for code violations. Hallways often had temperatures dip near 40 degrees, causing children to wear coats when they left their classrooms. Many schools were so overcrowded that they were holding double sessions.
Teachers did their best under terrible conditions. “We now have four electric lights in our room,” a Tillinghurst Elementary School teacher said. “We used to have just two.”
Not that they didn’t recognize that children were being shortchanged.
“There are a lot of future citizens growing up and being educated out here without enough of any kind of equipment and even without sufficient teachers,” said Nelle Smith, the principal at Nankipooh Elementary School.
City schools were not without problems. In the years that followed the war, enrollment grew 20 percent. Crowded conditions kept elementary schools from being accredited in 1948-49. With construction halted during World War II, the city needed a massive building program.
The vote on the merger was scheduled for May 4, 1949. To pass, a majority in both the city and county was required. Support was strong. Both Patterson and Columbus city superintendent William Henry Shaw supported the merger, as did both the morning Enquirer and afternoon Ledger. Teachers in both systems wanted it to pass.
The pressure was on the county, whose 4,394 voters had a historic distrust of their city neighbors. To add to the challenge, under the merger plan county taxpayers faced a larger tax increase than their in-town neighbors.
An editorial in the Enquirer two weeks before the vote said the newspaper felt city residents should be delighted to extend a helping hand. “We must not forget this is one community and that the interests of one section of it are the interests of all sections.”
When votes were counted, the measure passed in both the city and county though by only a 32-vote margin in the county. Only 9 percent of the registered voters cast ballots. The following January, the newly constituted district was formed.
Columbus State University political science professor Bill Chappell said the school merger was important when the consolidation of city and county governments was again considered in 1970. “It prepared the way,” he said.
Other agencies were consolidated in the years that followed the school merger, coming at a time when consolidation was a popular issue across the country. In 1947, Baton Rouge, La., was the nation’s first city-county government to consolidate, and in 1970 Columbus became Georgia’s first consolidated government.
Assistant Superintendent Tom Walters, considered the district historian, says the merger should not be viewed as only an economic decision. “It is the foundation of our modern system,” he said. “They wanted more programs and better facilities. And it worked.”
1950 Columbus City Schools
Columbus High, Jordan High, Columbus Junior High, East Highlands, Eleventh Street, Fox, Johnson, Linwood, McIlhennhy, Rose Hill, Seventh Street, Sixteenth Street, St. Elmo, Waverly Terrace, Wynnton, Spencer High, Radcliff High, Brooksville, Claflin, Fifth Avenue, Manly Taylor, Pou Street, Radcliff Elementary, Bealwood.
1950 Muscogee County Schools
Baker High, Baker Elementary, Bibb, Rochelle, Fortson, Nankipooh, Gentian, Flat Rock, Midland, Bethel, Biggers, Cross Roads, Jordan, Liberty Hill, Mt. Pleasant, Nances, Neel Village, Pilgrim Rest, Pitts Chapel, St. James, Upatoi, Wimberly.
Tom Walters doesn’t like to see the words “Muscogee County Schools” on the sides of the system’s fleet of yellow school buses. “We are the Muscogee County School District,” said Walters, assistant superintendent for personnel. “We represent both the county and the city.”
Some people don’t need to be reminded. They remember the two distinct systems either as students or teachers before voters approved their merger in 1950. Carol Ragsdale, who retired two years ago as a teacher at Cusseta Road Elementary School, recently visited with a number of people who were there when the new district was created. Here are glimpses of what she heard from these retired educators.
“I came to Pou Street School as a teacher in 1924, becoming principal in 1945. We had running water, but our bathroom plumbing was of the outdoor variety. We heated with pot-bellied stoves and had a janitor who built the fires. We had no lunchroom, so I would cook soup on our stove for the students’ lunches. I cut up the makings at home and cooked them at school. The neighborhood children played basketball and baseball on the playground and we had no break-ins. The neighbors took care of each other and of us. I retired in 1968 after 44 years of teaching. Pou Street School was closed in the 1970s and in 1995 a new school was built adjacent to the old school. It bears my name — the Lyda H. Hannan Elementary Magnet Academy. Teaching has given me a most rewarding and satisfying life. Recently I attended the Alpha Unity Breakfast and the speaker was George Robert Johnson Jr., the president of LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis. He was one of my old students at Pou Street.” – Lydia Haywood Hannan
“I came to Columbus because of the merger. I went first to Columbus Junior High, which is now the Academic Success Center. I then went to Columbus High. I was a coach, guidance counselor and assistant principal until 1961. When Richards Junior High opened, I went there as its first principal and two years later returned to Columbus High as principal. During my time at Columbus High, we had outstanding teams in all sports and excellent band, drama, choral music and string programs as well as academic success. We achieved integration with a minimum of confusion. The sports departments of the various schools began working on integration before the actual integration took place. Mr. Duvall, the principal at Spencer and Otis Spencer, the coach at Spencer, spearheaded this with Dr. William Henry Shaw’s approval. This helped make total integration go more smoothly. As I reflect on those years, I have a very satisfactory feeling. Many times I have picked up the newspaper or listened to radio or watched TV and have seen or heard the name of a former student who has achieved fame. This is what a career in education is all about. The rewards are rich.” — Herman Dollar
“I came to Meeler Hill School to teach in 1939. It was located on Collier Avenue just off what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard. It was started by African-American parents who wanted their children to have the education they had been denied. Not only did they provide an education for their children, but their grandchildren and great-grandchildren later attended this school. In 1944 I went to Fort Valley State to finish my degree, which I received in 1945. When I returned to Columbus I asked to teach at Pou Street where my sister, Lyda Hannan, was teaching. Ordinarily, two members of the same family were not allowed to teach in the same school but the superintendent made an exception in our case. I went to Pou Street and taught first grade. She taught fifth grade until she became principal. The rewards of teaching are great — not in the pay or in prestige but in the enlightened look in a child’s eyes when he understands a new concept, from seeing or hearing the name of a former student who has been successful and knowing you had a part in it, or from hearing a voice in the mall or on the street call out, ‘Hello, Mrs. Bass!’ I am grateful to be a teacher.” – Alma Bass
“I was principal at Columbus High during the merger of the school systems in 1950. Before the merger, the city schools would take a small quota of county students for which the parents paid tuition. At Wynnton School, parents would line up in front of the school all night hoping to get their children enrolled in Wynnton. Columbus High had a furnace that needed to be stoked. Our janitors were Ed Dennis and Frank Simmons. Ed rode a bicycle to school. They arrived at 3 a.m. so the school would be warm by the time classes started. One of our teachers had a dog and Frank took care of her dog. Frank hadn’t had the opportunity to go to school and she gave him reading lessons. I became the school district’s first assistant superintendent of personnel in 1960. That was right down my alley. I hired all the teachers, some of whom became principals and administrators. Two became superintendents.”— Brice Carson
“When the city limits were extended, I attended Fifth Avenue School with no idea that I would be teaching there some day. I was teaching at St. James when the city and county schools merged. This was a three-room frame building located on North Star Drive where Dawson School now stands. Heat came from a wood/coal stove. We were crowded and on double sessions. Dorothy Prather and I taught first and second grades. Since she taught in the morning she had to build the fire, but I had to keep it going after I got there. After the merger I went to Neel Village then to Fifth Avenue, which was a brick building with central heat and indoor plumbing. However, I didn’t teach in the main building. My room was in the old blacksmith shop which had four rooms heated by pot-bellied stoves. So there I was, still tending fires.”— Hazel Byrd
“I taught at Radcliff High before and after the merger. We used to play Spencer in football. Spencer had a band. Parents raised $1,500 for the instruments and the school board hired a band director. Radcliff didn’t have a band. However, Robert Holston, now the pastor at Nazareth Baptist Church, had a drum. Some of the girls made majorette uniforms. Rev. Holston played his drums and the girls marched at halftime. We were referred to as the one-drum band.” — Eliza Maddox
Fifty years ago, Baker and Bibb were the jewels in the county school system’s dilapidated crown. Now they are on the eve of extinction.
They were the only schools in the county with full-time principals and the only ones not heated by pot-bellied stoves. They were well equipped and well supplied. Baker, in fact, was the largest high school in the state at the time — larger than many Georgia school systems. Brought into the newly consolidated Muscogee County School District in 1950, they continued to be viable members of the system until age and change caught up with them.
Yvonne Veasey is a 44-year school district employee, a valued member of its construction team, which is overseeing the most ambitious building program in local annals. Asked about the future of the old schools, she knew more about their pasts.
“How well I know,” she said. “I went to both of them.”
Veasey was a student at Bibb Elementary, graduating from the fifth grade the year of the merger. “Only they added a sixth grade and I went back to Bibb another year, graduating from the sixth grade there,” she said.
When the seventh grade was added, she went back to Bibb for her third graduation ceremony. Finally, she started going to Baker High, graduating in 1956. By that summer, she had a job at the school district’s main office. She’s worked there 44 years, but her time in local school totals 57 years, going back to kindergarten at Bibb.
“I grew up here,” she said. “It’s my life.”
Both Bibb and Baker were scheduled to fully close at the end of the 2000 school year, but their future isn’t clear. Construction delays at the new elementary school near Fox could keep Bibb open for at least part of next year. Though a new building bearing the old name opened this year down Benning Road, the Baker cafeteria may be needed as work begins on other campuses around town, putting their kitchens out of order.
The school board may deal with the fate of both schools this month. The Baker property may be considered expendable but other uses have been considered for Bibb, which was built by the Bibb Manufacturing Company as a school for children who grew up in the nearby mill village.
Fifty years ago, the merger of the two systems was controversial. Some arguments were parochial. County people had an inborn pride in their system and didn’t want it swallowed up by the city folks. “It’s the old Southern attitude of mistrust of government,” Chappell said. The other concern was taxes. “Education is the most important thing we do until we have to pay for it,” he added.
In the years that followed consolidation, voters approved a bond issue that spurred a major construction program, building many schools that are still in use. It was the first consolidated system in Georgia and since then others have followed its lead. “It was calculated to bring the city and county together. It was a way of saying together we can build,” Walters said.
Superintendent Guy Sims said that decision is still felt — a half century later. “It has had far-reaching effects that have enabled us to maintain a strong school system. While in other places the city or county became racially imbalanced, we did not,” Sims said. “That has helped us be a diverse system with equity for all. It made us a stronger school system.”