Americus School History
submitted by Alan Anderson
It all began in 1873 with the youngest member of the Georgia General Assembly, 24-year-old Allen Fort, of Americus. On February 13 the legislature approved "An Act To Establish a Permanent Board of Education for the City of Americus, and to Incorporate the Same, and for Other Purposes", authored by the future jurist. Appointed to the new board were Col. Timothy M. Furlow, Rev. Dr. George F. Cooper, Rev. Angus M. Wynn, Rev. James S. White, Uriah B. Harrold, Judge James M. Clark, George W. Sirrine, Peter F. Brown, Col. Allen S. Cutts, Samuel H. Hawkins, Maj. Moses Speer, Merrell Callaway and the city's mayor as an ex officio member. Reflecting the tenor of the times, they were a homogeneous group - white, male and Christian.
Their first organizational meeting occurred at the antebellum courthouse in the middle of the town square (now bisected by Windsor Ave.) on the evening of February 25. Col. Cutts presided and G.W. Sirrine was elected secretary pro tem. Board rules and regulations were adopted and permanent officers elected, viz. Rev. Dr. G.F. Cooper, president, Rev. A.M. Wynn, vice-president and Maj. M. Speer, treasurer. Mayor Hiram L. French was the ex officio member. The newly ensconced board then formally resolved to open the schools in the fall.
Almost immediately, the town's naysayers raised numerous objections to free, universal education. Some were philosophical or ideological, some fiscal or economic, others simply racist. In July the anti-tax faction, led by two brothers, Drs. Wade J. and William W. Barlow, took legal action, filing suit in superior court. That court's justice, Hon. J.M. Clark, was a member of the school board. As a consequence, the case was heard in Macon. Southwest Georgia's most prominent legal minds, all Americus residents, argued the case. Representing the complaintants were Col. Willis A. Hawkins, a future state supreme court justice and his son, Eugene A. Hawkins, a future mayor of Americus, Gen. Phil Cook, of the renowned Doles-Cook Brigade, C.S.A., and Charles F. Crisp, a future U.S. House Speaker. For the defendants, former mayor Nathan A. Smith and Col. Charles T. Goode, both highly esteemed attorneys. Although the injunction against the schools was granted, the defending lawyers appealed to the state supreme court. In September, that august body overruled the tax levying authority of the school board.
Despite six more years of legal wrangling, a limited fourmonth experiment at public education was attempted in 1876. On September 4, the white female school opened, with 120 pupils, in the Furlow Masonic Female College, north side College, between Forrest and Jackson, the white male school, with 75 pupils, in the Rylander Academy, northwest corner of College and Elm. W.B. Seales was the principal of the former and G.M. Patterson, the latter. The legal advertisement merely noted that "...colored schools...will be provided with competent teachers." This noble effort lasted one season.
Finally, in December 1879, came the announcement welcomed by all of Americus' progressive elements. A fully functional, albeit racially segregated, system of universal, free public education was inaugurated in January 1880. White children attended the former female college with James E. Mathis, high school principal, grades eight through ten, Miss Mary C. Bethune, grammar school principal, grades four through seven, and Mrs. A.F. Shiver, primary school principal, grades one through three. This was known initially as the Jackson St. School. Black children began their education in ten churches, halls and other buildings scattered about the city, under the leadership of George W.F. Phillips, grammar school principal, A.R. Cooper, intermediate school principal and J.H. Covington, primary school principal. Overseeing the entire operation was the system's first superintendent, Prof. John Neely.
Shortly after the realization of his dream, the board's first president, Rev. Dr. George F. Cooper, died in 1882. Prof. J.E. Mathis, in 1940, had a huge boulder (characterizing Cooper's ruggedness) with bronze plaque erected as a memorial, at his grave site in Oak Grove Cemetery. The plaque bears the inscription: Dr. George F. Cooper 1825-1882 Pastor First Baptist Church Leading Physician Father of Americus Public Schools.
Two years later, in 1884, black pupils acquired their own school building, McCay (pronounced McCoy) Hill School, on a twoacre lot, east side Poplar, between Academy and McCoy. Designed and constructed by local black architects and contractors, Samuel Stevens and Jefferson Jones, the school's first principal was Prof. George Washington Franklin Phillips. It housed grades one through seven. Again reflecting the tenor of their times, a high school for blacks was regarded as superfluous. Local opportunities for black higher education would have to await the establishment of Prof. Major W. Reddick's Americus Institute in 1897. Although not an affiliate of the city's school system, it served a complementary purpose until its closure in 1932, allowing black scholars to supplement their primary education without leaving the community.
In 1885, the board added a fourth year of high school, making eleven in all. The twelfth grade would not make its appearance until over sixty years later! In March of the former year, Prof, G.W.F. Phillips and Lee Jones started the Franklin Square Library at McCay Hill School, the city's first-ever public library for blacks who, under segregation, could not avail themselves of the city public library on Jackson (presently the location of the old Carnegie Library).
As Americus grew to become the eighth largest city in Georgia at the turn of the century, so too, did its school system. In 1890, the Jackson St. School was enlarged with the addition of two classroom wings on the north and south ends of the old college building. In November 1897 the school's name was changed to the Furlow School, commemorating original board member and Masonic female college patron, Col. Timothy Mathews Furlow.
Overcrowding had made the situation at Furlow School untenable by 1907. It was noted that five grades in the High School occupied three classrooms. Two rooms had four grades. An eighty to one pupil-teacher ratio in the sixth grade begged for relief. Superintendent A.G. Miller, meanwhile, was touting the use of corporal punishment by teachers and principals as "...no other way of correcting an unruly boy satisfactorily" (girls were sent home to be punished by their parents).
By the end of the first decade of the new twentieth century, Americus' burgeoning population required the construction of a new, and separate, high school building. The site chosen was at the northwest corner of Rees Park. Little & Phillips, Cordele architects who had just completed the Carnegie Library, were awarded the $23,000 contract in December 1909. With another $6,000 for furnishings and architect's fees, the total outlay was $29,000, excluding site acquisition. The cornerstone ceremony was conducted on April 7,1910, with construction completed in time for the 1910-1911 term that September.
Along with the new high school came, in 1911, the first published yearbook, "The A-Meri-Klan", subsequently renamed "The AMeri-Clan", under the direction of Prof. A.M. Arnett, chairman of the English department. The name reflected the oppressive attitude of white supremacy that permeated so much of the society. The first leather-bound issue came in 1913, under the auspices of Prof. Charles G. Clements. The war years of 1917-1918 followed by a recession from 1919-1922, obviated the expense of yearbooks but the practice was resumed in 1923.
Although renovated by Columbus architect T.F. Lockwood, in June 1909, Furlow Grammar School was still dangerously overcrowded, in a building more than half a century old and showing its age. Much concern was expressed for small children who had to walk more than a mile from outlying neighborhoods like East Americus and Prospect, or Brooklyn, Heights. To rectify both adverse situations, the board in 1913 moved for razing the old college building and replacing it with a modern institution, while erecting two new primary schools, first through third grades, in the aforementioned neighborhoods.
During the demolition of the antebellum college building, a curious discovery was made. On May 7,1914, when the 1859 granite cornerstone was taken down, it was found to contain relics of a bygone era. Blackened with age and corrosion, gold, silver and copper coins, a Masonic pamphlet, and two or three packages of wholly illegible papers were removed. After display at one of the city's premiere jewelers, the ancient remnants were, at the suggestion of Superintendent J.E. Mathis, reinterred in the original cornerstone which was itself inserted next to the new one. This building, which still stands, hosted a gala reception three days before its opening on Nov. 2,1914. Miss Sarah Pope Cobb would serve as its first and only principal until her retirement in 1948.
Both the Prospect Heights and East Americus schools were designed by the same architects who had done the high school at Rees Park. At a cost of $5,000 each, they would house a total of three hundred primary students. The brick structures were regarded as models of their kind. Even though they were ready for inspection in January 1914, it was decided to wait until September to use them rather than disrupt classes in midterm. They served their constituents well, being phased out at the end of the 19371938 school year. The Brooklyn Heights building yet remains at 927 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, spending some years as the highway patrol post in the intervening years.
The East Americus, or Wheatley, School's site, currently the location of the Golden Corral Restaurant, was originally donated by Hon. William Harris Crawford Wheatley, Sumter's state representative. Long a proponent of public education, Wheatley had earlier procured for Americus the college now known as Georgia Southwestern. The school's first principal (1914-1931), Miss Mattie Sue Taylor, was much beloved and memorialized with a marble fountain in front of the school in April 1931, shortly after her death. Both building and fountain were razed in 1978.
With the war in Europe over two years old by 1916, a spirit of American militarism began to manifest itself. In Americus, this involved the formation in September 1916 of a military cadet corps at the high school, consisting of seventy-four uniformed and armed young men. Drilling exercises were conducted in Rees Park.
In January 1920 came the announcement of McCay Hill School's selection as having the first auto mechanic vocational curriculum in the state, black or white, under the Smith-Hughes Vocational Education Act. State inspector J.F. Cannon reported that this was the first school to undertake this line of instruction in Georgia under federal aid. Ernest Barnett, well known mechanic with W.G. Turpin & Co. (now Halstead Chevrolet) was the instructor.
Domestic science, that generation's term for home economics, had been instituted at McCay Hill two years earlier for the female students. Under the supervision of Miss Oziebel Hart, a Spelman graduate and daughter of pioneer black businessman Matt Hart, the department consisted of a domestic science home, a neat cottage of four rooms, with a kitchen, dining room and laundry.
Despite the progressive moves, the situation had become so logistically impossible by 1927 that the Negro Business League, led by William R. Burleigh, along with Elbert Stallworth and Boss W. Warren, petitioned the city school board for much-needed improvements. They pointed out serious deficiencies, i.e., all 900 black students attended one school; small children in forced association with older teenagers after having traversed considerable distances to get there; a lack of janitorial services, this function being assumed by the students themselves; no school auditorium for assemblies; the absence of a high school facility; and, general overcrowding, sometimes a seventy-four to one pupilteacher ratio. Request was also made for the construction of two grade schools, one near the present location of Union Tabernacle Baptist Church on Hampton, the other between Balkcom's Store, southwest corner Jackson and Patterson, and Triedstone Baptist Church on Quincy. In spite of a pledge of one-fourth of the financing by the League, the movement came to naught. However, in 1929, the ninth grade was added making McCay Hill a junior high school.
Real improvement in education for local blacks finally arrived with the approval in January 1935, under the Federal Emergency Relief Act, of the construction of a new high school building on the site of the old Americus Institute. That 15 1/2-acre property had been obtained by the city, with the black community subsidizing almost a guarter of the cost. City Engineer Sherley S. Hudson supervised the project under the watchful eye of building committee chairman J.W.C. Horne. Plans were drawn for a building "of aeroplane design", with twelve rooms and an auditorium. The domestic science department was in the south wing, with the modern workshop in the west wing. Preliminary construction work under the Works Progress Administration began that summer. By its completion in the fall of 1936, the total cost had reached $41,000. Actual classes began in late October, before the installation of the facility's heating plant.
With the formal dedication of the school's playground by recreation leader John Mitchell at the end of February 1937, and its christening in honor of the late lamented Rev. Alfred Samuel Staley, state Baptist leader and former principal of McCay Hill, the school held its dedicatory exercises on June 4,1937, with E.J. Granberry as principal.
In March 1940, A.S. Staley High School was one of only thirteen black schools in the South, and the only one in Georgia, selected by John D. Rockefeller's General Education Board in New York, for an experimental program. Superintendent Samuel C. Haddock said the school's 210 students' curriculum would be revital- ized to "...make the courses offered better adapted to the practical life of the Negroes." The continual emphasis on primarily manual and domestic education for blacks was a constant thread running through much of the system's historic tapestry.
Under the separate-but-equal doctrine (definitely separate, but painfully unequal), so rigidly observed throughout the South during the first six decades of this century, building a high school for Americus' blacks inevitably precipitated the erection of one for whites. Mayor James A. Fort formally applied to the Public Works Administration for federal funding in August 1936. Designed by Columbus architect T.F. Lockwood, actual construction began over a year later, on Dec. 13,1937. The one-story brick veneered building was comprised of eight classrooms, physics and chemical laboratories, a commercial department, domestic science room, study hall and library, workshop, and auditorium.
In February 1938 several developments occurred regarding the new high school. The school board approved consolidating with the county's Anthony High School, located at the northwest corner of Anthony and Edgewood, its students attending Americus High while the Anthony building would be used as a practice school for Georgia Southwestern College. Mrs. Frank P. Harrold donated the life-size painting of Murillo's "The Madonna and Child" for the better promotion of art appreciation among the students. The painting dominated the school's lobby until its destruction in the 1964 fire. Additionally that month, after a straw poll in the "Times-Recorder", as well as a poll of the students themselves, the name "Americus High School" was chosen, with C.M. Hale Memorial High the runner-up suggestion. Prof. Charles Monroe Hale, the school's much-beloved principal from 1914 until his untimely suicide in 1936, had been memorialized with the naming of the school's library in his honor shortly after his death, for it was almost entirely of his own creation.
On March 18,1938 the cornerstone ceremony was conducted with appropriate Masonic rituals, the stone being situated in the northeast corner of the building. Total cost for Americus High School was $80,000.
In April, the school board elevated Prof. S.C. Haddock to the superintendency and replaced him with Coach Jack Finklea as the new high school's principal. The old Rees Park school was made a junior high with R.H. Comer as principal and the East Americus and Brooklyn Heights facilities were discontinued.
A quarter century of classes began in the new Americus High School in September 1938.
In 1941, conditions at the 875-student McCay Hill Grammar School had deteriorated so badly that the Junior Chamber of Commerce, all white, noted disapprovingly the forty-three to one pupil-teacher ratio, primitive outdoor plumbing, stairways with no railings, an inadequate two-room soup kitchen and nonexistent playground equipment. The school board responded by requesting the city council to construct a new black grammar school. Adhering to the reality of separate-but-unequal, the city council pleaded its usual lack of available funding.
The arrival of Daniel Timothy Grant as A.S. Staley High's principal in 1947 saw the first crack in the racially-stereotyped curriculum of manual and domestic labor for black students. Recognizing the need for cultural enrichment in education, Daniel T. Grant, author of When the Melon is Ripe, a somewhat unusual book he wrote about his experiences here, implemented the first musical band program in the history of Americus' black community. Within a year, the A.S. Staley High School Band was winning competitions as one of the finest in the state.
Another interesting personality on the local education scene, Miss Sarah Pope Cobb, was recognized for her fifty-three years of dedicated service at Furlow Grammar School, in 1946. During her twenty-three years of teaching and thirty years as the school's principal, "None knew her but to love her; none named her but to praise". Granddaughter of Gen. Howell Cobb, one of Georgia's most prominent men of the Antebellum Era, "Miss Sarah" is herself memorialized in the 1970 elementary school bearing her name, located at the southern terminus of Valley Drive.
Even with a November 1946 Sumter County Grand Jury recommendation, a brief flirtation with consolidating the city and county schools never quite reached fruition. That reality would not be achieved for almost half a century.
In April 1947 the board voted to inaugurate a twelve-grade system the following school year, the then present seventh graders becoming the first to have twelve full years of schooling when they graduated.
The decade closed on a high note with the first game played in the new football stadium on September 23,1949. With 1,200 steel bleacher seats on the south side and 500 wooden bleacher seats opposite, as well as a ten-shower set of dressing rooms in a converted livestock barn nearby, all surrounded by a new cyclone fence, total cost approached $12,000. Regarded as one of the best in the state, credit for its construction was shared by Mayor Fred P. Bowen and Superintendent Kemp L. Carpenter. In later years it was replaced by Finklea-Robinson Stadium, located immediately south of the former, named to honor the contributions of Coach Jack Finklea and Dr. John H. "Bud" Robinson, during their decades-long service to public education in Americus.
Indicative of the relatively slow-moving pace of the Eisenhower '50's, sandwiched between World War II and the coming era of Vietnam and civil rights, little transpired in local education circles. The most significant improvement, long overdue, was the construction in 1956 of the Eastview Elementary School on Ashby, next to the cemetery. Still in the throes of our own form of apartheid, it would be for blacks only. On Jan. 2,1957 the young scholars of McCay Hill Grammar School marched out of their old building, for the last time, two blocks over to the new $311,000 facility, with John Harris as their principal. The school was formally dedicated on Jan. 6,1957. Now an alternative school, Eastview Center, it was phased out as an elementary institution on June 7,1991.
Also in 1957, construction of an annex to Americus High permitted reunification of the junior and senior schools, with Rees Park converted to an elementary school to augment the overcrowded Furlow Grammar.
Substantial population growth and development in the southeast quadrant of the city led to the construction in 1963 of Cherokee Elementary, to accommodate the white children of that section. Its first principal was Don Hagler.
Perhaps as an ominous precursor of things shortly to come, the Americus High School building was severely damaged by fire on the night of January 26,1964. Prof. Hale's library was completely destroyed. Those portions surviving were incorporated into the reconstructed building which was completed in time for the 1966-1967 term. Mrs. Harrold's son, Frank W. Harrold, donated a replacement print of "The Madonna and Child", which yet remains.
Almost simultaneously, the 1964 Civil Rights Act broke over Americus and the rest of the South with a tidal wave of changes in our society, the ramifications of which are with us today. On August 31,1964 occurred what for many on both sides of the civil rights struggle had been considered impossible, the actual racial integration of Americus High School. Only token integration under a "freedom of choice" plan, the few black students at the formerly all-white school were subjected to verbal, physical and psychological abuse. Their adherence to and belief in equal educational opportunity for all citizens, regardless of color, made them truly profiles in courage.
In February 1966, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission issued a report that intimidation, harassment and violence had accompanied Americus' school desegregation. The potential loss of vital federal funds was narrowly averted by the board's transferral of 175 black students to previously all-white schools in March 1967.
The turning point for the Americus City School System came in 1970. Under a U.S. District Court order for compliance with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare's directives abolishing dual racial school systems, the board announced a fiftyfive to forty-five black-white ratio for each of its schools in January 1970. Outraged reaction from much, but not all, of the white community pressured the board to reverse itself at the next monthly meeting. A three-judge federal panel in April ruled the city's plan inadequate and threatened an imminent cut-off of state funds. The board finally complied in May with a plan that "paired" students in grades one through five, while those in grades six through twelve would attend the same schools.
Actual meaningful racial integration of the Americus schools was at long last accomplished on August 31,1970, with an enrollment of 1,136 whites and 1,725 blacks. A probably not so coincidental fire early that morning wreaked havoc with the 1936 building which had by then become A.S. Staley Junior High School. Despite the obviously provocative nature of the incident, Life Magazine was able to publish an article entitled "Discovering One Another In a Georgia Town" in its issue of February 12,1971 that portrayed Americus' school integration as relatively benign.
The fire fiend struck again at A.S. Staley Junior High on January 12,1972 with a pre-dawn conflagration that wiped out the remnants of the original structure. The 1957 cafeteria addition, along with the 1963 gym and classroom-office wing escaped unscathed, however. The addition of a classroom-library wing, two new classroom buildings, new cafeteria addition and office complex have A.S. Staley Middle School rising phoenix-like from the ashes of its own destruction.
In its final years of service to the community, Furlow Grammar School, the city's first, remember, began the 1972-1973 year with a new principal, Willie Paschal, the first black educator to head a formerly all-white school. Social progress was breaking out all over!
Within the next two years, the old Rees Park school joined Furlow Grammar in semi-retirement, the former now the home of Sumter Players, a local theatrical group, the latter as the city's Head Start Center from 1975 to 1991.
Meanwhile, on the athletic front, after two successive state AA championships, under the powerful coaching of Alton Shell and Doug Parrish, the National Sports News Service ranked the Ameri- cus High Panthers football team second in the nation in December 1975. The Panthers have enjoyed a long and successful tradition of winning, including five state championships in all!
The school system's final decade was a time of triumph and tragedy. The absolute nadir was the dismissal in 1986 of thirtyone teachers as a result of a budgetary crisis precipitated by the superintendent, Dr. Mel Buckley, who, himself, decided to seek employment elsewhere shortly thereafter. Fortunately, the preponderance of news was far more positive. Voter-approved bonds financed capital improvements on all the schools, resulting in an entirely modernized physical plant on each campus.
In point of fact, our final years can be accurately characterized as the Era of Awards, beginning with Cherokee Elementary in 1985, Mrs. Robin P. Lowrey, principal, continuing through A.S. Staley Middle in 1986, R. Lamar Sawyer, principal, and again in 1990, Clyde A. McGrady, principal, to Americus High in 1992 and 1994, Dr. Howard H. Hendley, principal, as Third Congressional District Schools of Excellence in their respective divisions. To make it even sweeter, A.S. Staley Middle was concurrently designated in 1990 as a National School of Excellence, with a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House with the President of the United States that September! Principal Clyde A. McGrady received a $25,000 Millken Fund award as an outstanding educator in 1990, one of only ten in the state. In July 1991, Dr. Ronnie A. Williams was chosen Georgia Superintendent of the Year by the Georgia School Superintendent Association. Dr. Howard H. Hendley was named 1992 Principal of the Year for Georgia by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Two other principals were similarly honored by the Georgia Association of Education Leaders in June 1994. Clyde A. McGrady was named Middle School Principal of the Year, and Mrs. Betty Harris as Elementary School Principal of the Year, for A.S. Staley and Cherokee, respectively. In one last grand flourish, during the system's final month, A.S. Staley Middle was, for the third time, honored as the Second Congressional District Middle School of Excellence, Clyde A. McGrady, principal. Impressed?
It is very easy to see how the Americus City School System has for 122 years aspired to emulate our motto, "A Tradition of Excellence". We leave Americus far better for our contribution to it.
Americus City School Superintendents
John Neely 1880-1882
John M. Gannon 1883-1888
A.J.M. Bizien 1889-1891
William Harper 1892-1896
James Edward Mathis 1897-1903
Augustus G. Miller 1904-1912
James Edward Mathis 1912-1938
Samuel Cleveland Haddock 1938-1948
Kempis Lee Carpenter 1949-1956
Warren Clay Mundy 1957-1969
Jimmy L. Hightower 1969
Spencer P. Davis 1970-1983
Dr. Mel Buckley 1984-1986
Patsy Knotts 1986
Dr. Ronnie A. Williams 1987-1994
Donald R. Hicks 1994
Dr. Howard H. Hendley 1994