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Willow Hill commemorates ‘equalization school’ past

Event touches anniversaries of school, Supreme Court ruling

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Posted: September 1, 2014 7:53 p.m.
Updated: September 1, 2014 7:49 p.m.
Willow Hill commemorates ‘equalization school’ past

While roasting a chicken with a string "rotisserie," Clarissa Clifton renders some salt pork over an open fire in preparation for making hoe cakes Saturday during the Willow Hill Heritage Festival. Clifton, who is from Statesboro but now lives in Atlanta, is a food historian and prepared a number of traditional African-American dishes. She explained that hoe cakes got their name from the practice of slaves using the blade of their hoes for cooking in the fields.


The fact that Willow Hill School was established in 1874 testifies to the desire of the founding families, nine years out of slavery, to educate their children. But the existing building, built in 1954, stands as an example of then-modern schools built by the state of Georgia in a last-ditch attempt to justify segregation.

"We all know it was not equal, but for the first time, African-Americans had decent school buildings supported by the state," said Jeanne Cyriaque, coordinator of African-American programs in the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Historic Preservation Division. "For the first time, African-American teachers had better classrooms to do their work in, and so it was a time of immense pride."

About 100 people gathered Saturday morning under a festival tent in front of the school, now the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, for the dedication of a new marker, awarded by the Georgia Historical Society with funding from the Georgia Natural Resources Foundation.

The cast-metal marker on a post carries a name that reflects the racial consciousness of the segregation era: "Willow Hill Elementary School for Negroes." Under that, on both sides of the marker, is the description "A Georgia Equalization School" and a brief history.

'Equalization schools'
"Equalization school" doesn't refer to the earlier, now vanished schoolhouses at Willow Hill but to the building that still stands. The year of its construction, 1954, was the year the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine that had countenanced segregation since the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896.

Willow Hill, near Portal, was one of about 500 new schools for African-American children built in Georgia as part of official state "massive resistance" to integration, Cyriaque said. Georgia spent $30 million on the construction of these schools. The strategy, also used by South Carolina and Mississippi, was a belated attempt to show that "equal" schools for black students could be provided but still be separate from those for whites.

The equalization period lasted through 1965 and actually began around 1949, according to Cyriaque.

"Georgia knew that integration was coming, long before Brown vs. Board," she said.

In Bulloch County, where the public schools were not fully desegregated until 1971, the Willow Hill facility was one of five equalization schools built. The others were the William James, Edward Johnson, New Hope and Mary Jackson schools.

Cyriaque, who has been identifying equalization schools around the state and encouraging efforts to preserve them, has surveyed 160 existing buildings. About a third of these still serve as active schools, including specialized schools such as pre-kindergartens and alternative schools. A number have been become community centers. One equalization school, at Morven in Brooks County, has become a homeless shelter.

Most of them were built in the modernist International Style, with flat roofs, transom windows for air circulation and originally no air-conditioning, Cyriaque noted. A "cafetorium," a cafeteria with a stage, was another common feature. Saturday's fourth annual Willow Hill Festival, which was also a celebration of the school's 140th anniversary and the 60th of the current building, continued with a prayer breakfast in the cafetorium.

During the dedication, Dr. Alvin Jackson, president of the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center and an alumni and descendant of some of the school's founders, spoke of its earlier history.

"Public education in Georgia started in 1871, and just a few years later, in 1874, just a few steps from where I stand now, Willow Hill School was founded in a turpentine shanty on Dan Riggs' place," Jackson said.

Dr. Brent Tharp, Georgia Southern University Museum director and Bulloch County Historical Society president, noted that, before the 1870s, when the first Willow Hill School was built, Georgia had done very little to support public education.

"For nearly a century, it had been essentially ignored, leaving a quality education available only to those who could afford to arrange it for themselves," Tharp said.

Other incarnations
The turpentine shack was the first of six buildings to house the school, Jackson said. The predecessor of the current building was a "Rosenwald school," wooden, but more modern than many rural schoolhouses. It was one of hundreds of schools for African-American students across the country built during the early 20th century with partial funding from the Rosenwald Fund, established by Sears & Roebuck President Julius Rosenwald.

The Bulloch County Board of Education purchased the Willow Hill campus, previously private property, in 1920. The 1954 building closed as a segregated school in 1969 and reopened as an integrated one in 1971, continuing in service until 1999. Ownership went full circle in 2005, when founders' descendants and other alumni bought the former school at auction for $124,000, including tax, Jackson said.

Some speakers, such as Bulloch County NAACP Branch President Pearl Brown and Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson, contrasted the value placed on education by the Willow Hill families to trends today.

"We are working to try to preserve our young people," said Brown, referring to tutorial and mentoring work. "A lot of our minority children, especially our black males, are not being educated."

After the marker had been unveiled, Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center board member Patricia Harden Willis gave closing remarks. She was in sixth grade at Willow Hill when it closed as a segregated school in 1969, then went on to other, racially integrated schools.

"We not only want to be able to pass this legacy on to our children, but we need for our children to truly, truly understand the sacrifices that our forefathers, our grandparents, our great-grandparents, people in this community made for us to have education, and education for so many of our children is truly, truly undervalued," Willis said.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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