- Associated Press - Monday, March 3, 2014

ABBEVILLE, Miss. (AP) - Several original school desks remain inside the former Abbeville School, their hinges rusted. The wood tops remain clear, though, free of evidence that students once sat in the seats more than 60 years ago.

Ben Isom remembers sitting in those desks and wasn’t surprised there were no marks or carvings in the wood.

“You didn’t want to be caught doing that to the desks back then or you’d likely get a whoopin’,” Isom said.

Isom is one of many former students of Abbeville’s first black school that opened in 1950 who have joined together in recent years to renovate the old school. Today it is called the Gordon Community and Cultural Center.

The school was built in 1949 and opened to students in January 1950 for grades first through eighth. The land for the school was donated by the Gordon family who lived in Abbeville.

“There were a lot of one-room, church schools throughout the community but all the children were going to different places,” said Janice Carr, who serves on the center’s board of directors as vice president.

“There was a woman who worked in the superintendent’s office who overheard someone talking about funds being available for black schools so she came back and told some people in the community about it.”

The one-room church schools included Jefferies, Liberty Hill, Mt. Vernon, Providence and Springfield.

The Lafayette County Board of Supervisors agreed to pay $4,000 toward the new school, but the community had to raise another $4,000 to match those funds.

“They did a lot of fish fries and a lot of the same kinds of events we still do today to raise the money,” Carr said.

The new school had four classrooms; however, it didn’t have indoor bathrooms, running water or a kitchen. The building was heated with wood heaters. But it was the first “real” school many of Abbeville’s black children attended.

“It was a big move,” Frankie Logan said. “Was a big thing for us.”

A second building was built a few years later for ninth through 12th grades. In the 1960s, a third building was built for grades first through sixth and the original building served as a middle school for seventh and eighth-grade students.

When schools were integrated in the late 1960s, the Abbeville School was closed and its students were transported to the public schools in Oxford.

Bernice Herod remembers that day well.

“It was hard at first,” Herod said. “We weren’t used to each other. They didn’t know our ways and we didn’t know their ways but eventually, we all came together and worked it out and enjoyed being with each other.”

The school stood deserted for more than 40 years. In the 1970s, the state opened up a Head Start school in the newer of the three buildings. It shut down years later and moved to Oxford where it is now the Mary Cathey Head Start. The second building that served as the high school was demolished in the 1980s.

In 2009, community members joined together to save the old school and started a campaign to raise funds needed to renovate the original school building and turn it into the community and cultural center.

In the last four years, more fish fries were held and church benefits to raise the money. Those donating $200 could “buy” one of the windows in the school and have their name put on a small plate that now sits under each of the large windows. Lafayette County repaired the roof and the Three Rivers Planning Development and Loft Foundations also contributed funds.

Today, the school has fresh paint and new chairs, donated by the University of Mississippi. The walls and floors were repaired, but the goal was to keep the school looking as historically accurate as possible.

The old chalk boards were beyond repair so green paint was used to paint the walls where the boards were once hung. A small clothing thrift store that is open on Saturday mornings is now located in one of the smaller classrooms. The funds raised there go directly to the renovations and upkeep of the school.

There are still no indoor bathrooms or central heat or air conditioning but those things are next on the list, said Gordon Center board president Timothy Gordon.

“When I was coming up, I would pass this building and see it falling apart and thought about the great sacrifices that were made by many to build it,” Gordon said.

The community center has held two events since the renovations that were held on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday for two consecutive years. This summer, the school will host its first Summer Enrichment Camp for children 7 to 12 years old. A community and class reunion is planned for October.

The board is continually taking donations to keep the center operating to help pay for the electricity it uses and to build bathrooms and the heating and cooling system. While financial donations are needed, Carr and Gordon said contractors willing to donate time and supplies are also very much welcomed.

“We’d like to build a basketball court where the old high school’s foundation is,” Carr said. “And even one day dig a pool so the kids in Abbeville have somewhere to swim in the summer. I’d love to see this used as a school again one day, where kids learn without all the technology, having to use their brain.”

If enough funds are raised in the future, the board would also like to renovate the old Head Start building that is still sitting locked up with windows boarded up and broken in some areas.


Information from: Oxford Eagle, https://www.oxfordeagle.com

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