Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Weems Elementary School in Taylor

A few weeks ago, my friend Debra and I were talking about segregation, integration, and consolidation of schools in Mississippi.  I had commented about some recent research that turned up an article describing the effects on consolidation, and in particular, to the Taylor community:
While providing little benefit for blacks, the consolidation of white schools created additional burdens for black schools and black taxpayers.  In some places, county officials actually moved black schools to make way for the new, larger white schools.  In the northeast Mississippi community of Taylor, for example, the local black school 'was pushed out of the town limits' in the early 1930s to make room for a white consolidated school. (Bolton, C. C. (2000). Mississippi's school equalization program, 1945-1954: A last gasp to try to maintain a segregated educational system. The Journal of Southern History, 66(4), 781-814)
In 1926, Taylor built a "modern school...down by the tracks" (http://www.taylorms.org/history.html) which was closed in the late 1960s.  Mississippi Department of History and Archives, Historic Resources Inventory database identified the Administration building as 1926, White School in 1930, Cafeteria in 1946, and teacher's house in 1948.

From the Taylor website history:
The African American community of Taylor boasts a proud educational tradition that ran parallel with the segregated white schools....In 1936, the community galvanized to build a proper school.
The Taylor Vocational High School, a 5-room "model of excellence in the state" was completed at the site of the current community center in Taylor.  MDAH indicated the Taylor school for African American students was constructed as a classroom and library in 1936, and the cafeteria in 1946.  This school also operated until the 1960s according to the Taylor history.
So what then is the story of the Weems Elementary School, constructed in 1960, outside the town limits?  Debra had informed me when I was sharing the story that the abandoned building was located past the old school site where the community center is currently located.
This new school was constructed in 1960, in the section of the Taylor community where African Americans lived and still live, and operated until at least 1966 it would appear.  Mississippi did not begin to integrate schools until at least 1970 when finally forced to do so, and based on Debra's information, this school was constructed for use by African American children in Taylor.

Weyeneth (2005) discussed at length the role space played in segregation in The Architecture of Racial Segregation in the creation of
 a distinctive architectural form.  We know much about segregation as a political, legal, and social institution but relatively little about it as a spatial system. (p. 11).
Weyeneth stated his analysis was intended to:
...analyze the spatial strategies of white supremacy during the Jim Crow era....the two major ways that the races were separated architecturally--isolation and partitioning--and offers examples of the types of spaces that resulted. (p. 12)
He added:
The discussion then turns to the means by which these forms were created....looks at the response to these imposed spaces.  It examines how African Americans actually used these places and how blacks were able to construct alternative spaces. (p. 12)

African Americans, in Taylor as in the rest of Mississippi, struggled against almost impossible, and sometimes, totally impossible, circumstances to educate themselves and their children, and in spite of those circumstances, carried on in doing an excellent job, and for that, they should be proud.  It, however, seems something of a stretch to me to call it "a proud...tradition that ran parallel with the segregated white schools."  As the history section of the Taylor website explained:
Black schools did not receive the same tax revenue as the white schools, so the students' parents provided wood to heat the makeshift school house.
In reality, African American students' parents provided far more than wood for heating, or else their children did without.  Michael Fuquay (2002) presented a far more compelling explanation of the tax revenues and school equity and governance:
In this respect, private schools were simply a new strategy in an ongoing contest over school desegregation.  More importantly, this essay demonstrates that Mississippi's private school system was built using public funds, both legally and illegally....White Mississippians had long used their public schools to promote their racial ideology, while at the same time reinforcing it by severely limiting the educational opportunities available to black children....Prior to 1965, local control in Mississippi had been synonymous with white control.  (Civil Rights and the Private School Movement in Mississippi, 1964-1971, History of Education Quarterly, 42(2), p. 160)
When Debra said the new school had been abandoned, I was picturing the crumbling ruins of some small little structure.  I was not expecting, and indeed, was quite taken aback with, the sheer size of the Weems Elementary School.  From the photographs, one cannot really get an understanding of how large this building is.  If I recall accurately, there were 12 classrooms along the above wing of the building and 8 on the other end. 

I was reminded when I saw this huge school--albeit with the deteriorated roof--of the new Woodson High School in Abilene which had been constructed for African American students just prior to the enforced integration of schools.  After years of poorly equipped schools, the students finally had a brand new school, state of the art (Texas' attempts at legally maintaining separate but equal to challenge and resist integration), and rather than permit white students to attend school in a black neighborhood or black school through integration, the school was closed and black students were bussed to the white high school.  The building was later converted for use as, and still used as, the "alternative school" for students with "behavioral issues."

In the case of Weems, the building was clearly allowed to deteriorate, and stands empty and abandoned. 

The Weems Elementary School was designed by architects James C. Lee and Harold C. Brumfield.


LindaRe said...

Interesting post. Just as with Weems School, my African American elementary school was closed and we were bused to white schools. Today, the school functions as a community center.

Suzassippi said...

Thank you for your comment, LindaRe. I struggle with writing about this issue in general, and this post.

Lana Pugh said...

Desegregation of the schools is right up there with the time my dad spent on the picket line at work of topics he would still rather not talk about.

My mom will talk about it a little. She graduated high school in 1976 and my dad in 1974.

Suzassippi said...

I know what you mean. And just to clarify, I don't struggle with it in terms of whether or not I should talk about it, but just how to talk about it.