Old School

That’s “old school” is the term used to describe anyone who is not of the hip-hop, millennial generation. The millennial are often describes as the most self-center, pampered generation ever. Some say they feel a sense of entitlement that no other generation has had the luxury of receiving. But I wonder just how many of these folks really know what an “old school” really looks like.

The above photo is one I took in December 2000. It is a picture of the school building that black children attended in an East Texas community called Massey Lake. The school was built during the early 1900s-it is still standing. Massey Lake is near Tennessee Colony, Texas. Tennessee Colony is located about 12 miles north of Palestine, Texas in Anderson County. If you will research Texas history online you can read the history of how Tennessee Colony, Texas got its name. White colonists from Tennessee settled there. The early settlers or colonists came to this region first in 1822 after Stephen F. Austin, the so-called Father of Texas, received land grants from Mexico to settle in what was then Spanish Territory. It is part of the early populating of the expansive wilderness that later became Texas. The land grant that Austin received included generous portions of land for a wife, children and each slave. Tennessee Colony was also the home of one of the largest slave plantations in Anderson County from the mid 1800s until 1865.

I started first grade at the age of 5, in September 1953, in a rural Anderson County “old school.” The school I attended looked pretty much like this one. The school was for “colored children” who lived in “the country”—outside the city limits of Palestine, Texas. The “old school” I attended had two rooms, two teachers and went to the sixth grade. One teacher taught 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades in one room, the other taught the remaining grades in the other room. Just like the “old school” above, there was no running water, only a well dug out front. There was no inside toilets, the boys and girls out houses were behind the building. The only heat, just like the vent in the picture of the old school above, came from a wood heater. Next to the school was an old building that looked worse than the school where a lady cooked lunch—mostly red beans, cornbread and hominy. I refused to eat hominy—it made me sick. When the teachers taught their classes, she would call out the class, as in “1st grade math.” She would then ask students to take out the appropriate subject book, reading or math. Students sat at desks in rows according to their grade level. We stayed in our seats all day except for lunch recess. These segregated “old schools” were supplied with with books that had already been used by the white students. Back then the school books had a place just inside the front cover to write the name of the student. Every book I ever had already had the names of white students who got the books before we did. There was no place to write our names. The books had to be returned to the school district at the end of the school year.

“Old schools,” just like the one above, were the places for colored children to receive their Texas education after the Civil War and emancipation. Before these schools opened colored children went to school at rural “colored” churches where the pews served as desks. My grandmother and mother went to church schools until such time as the State of Texas was compelled to try to provide “some sort” of education for Negro children. What followed was “separate and unequal” education—that went along with “separate and unequal” everything else. Inside the rooms of these “old schools” we were taught whatever was in the Texas issued school books. We read “Dick and Jane” readers –with their dog Spot. The foundation of my education that eventually took me to the most elite universities in America started in one of the old schools. I learned to read, write, and do ‘rithmetic” at an “old school.” I remember going to school barefoot because I had no shoes. My lunch was whatever was left over from breakfast, mostly a biscuit, a piece of fried fatback, and a fried egg. My lunch box was an old syrup bucket. After I left my first colored school after the 3rd grade I ended up at another old “colored” school in Frost, Texas not far from Corsicana. Same type teaching situation with two teachers—one for all the elementary grades and one for grades 6 through 8. After the 8th grade, the colored students were bused to Dawson, Texas for grades 9-12. I didn’t attend Dawson schools because I ended up on Shamrock, Texas, 90 miles from Amarillo where I attended another “old school” name Dunbar. Dunbar was an old converted army barrack left over from World War II. It was “across the tracks” in the colored part of town and became the “colored school” for 12 grades. Again, same set up—one colored teacher for three grades. Ike Avery, now deceased, taught grades 6, 7 and 8, and also was the boys and girls basketball coach. There were two people in each of my class in all three grades. Books likewise passed through white kids before we got them. I attended Dunbar for 3 years and then ended up in Palestine, Texas in 1962, for grades 10, 11, and 12, at a school named A. M. Story High, named for a local black educator named Alonzo Marion Story.

I was rummaging through some photos when I ran across the above picture and I started to think about “old schools” and the role they played in my own education and that of thousands of colored children just like me. Then I think about today’s fancy, modern schools with every amenity a student can hope for. And still, so many of these students learn no more than I did in a building that looked like the one above. The kids today, especially black children, have no idea that “old schools” are a vital part of their own history—their own struggle for equality in America—that they should never forget. If they knew a bit more about “old schools” they would stop using the term in a derogatory way. Coincidentally, Tennessee Colony now has several prisons—filled with black men—another plantation. I prefer “old schools” to prisons any day. I prefer the role that black teachers played in these “old schools” that motivated me– compared to the wardens inside the many prisons now scattered all around Massey Lake.

Copyright 2017 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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