A solid education may be taken for granted by some of today’s youth, but black residents who have seen the past with their own eyes cherish today’s opportunities, because they remember the decades-long journey to get here.
During the Reconstruction Era between the early 1860s and late 1870s, black citizens had to pick up the pieces after slavery, an uphill battle considering many lacked any type of education. It was a time when Freedmen Schools, schools that taught former enslaved black people, were formed by the Freedmen’s Bureau — a U.S. federally agency that aided freed slaves — in order to teach blacks basic educational essentials.
In Newton County, one of the first reports of an actual Freedmen School was dated in 1866, where Edward Putry taught 25 pupils at a school in Covington. This school was just one of several formed in the county to educate freed slaves.
Since there wasn’t a true opportunity for many blacks to attend school, more schools for black students were created at the turn of the 20th century. Classes were held mainly at churches and sometimes in lodge halls.
It’s a history that Flemmie Pitts, a local historian and former board member of the Washington Street Community Center, knows all about and has spent years doing research on. Though the Washington Street Community Center has evolved over the decades into a haven for educating children outside of the classroom, it’s one of the few facilities that remains today as a symbol of how education has been transformed for blacks in Newton County.
The center first was known as the Washington Street School. The school dates back to 1883, when a black man from Oxford, Augustus C. Wright, established the school in Covington with several other people. Wright served as an educator and a principal at the school, which primarily served as grammar school.
Pitts said he recently learned that the land for the Washington Street School was donated by a man with the last name of Bryant, who was one of the wealthiest blacks in the area.
"Augustus Wright and a few others built this school for blacks," Pitts said. "A guy...Bryant from Monticello, in Jasper County — this was one of the richest [blacks] back in the 1800’s on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line — he owned about 4,000 acres of land in Jackson County and they had a black farm corporation that sold a lot of stuff.
"Augustus Wright was the president of the corporation and...Bryant from Monticello was the treasurer, and I just found out that he had built a black school in Monticello — he donated the land for this Washington Street School."
Pitts said the Washington Street School at first had about 27 students who attended. He said Augustus Wright would walk from Oxford to Covington every day with one of his daughters to teach at the school. At the time, education at the school did not exceed the third grade. This was a common issue in many of the schools for blacks at then because it had been illegal to teach reading, writing and arithmetic to slaves — who had now become teachers — before 1865. Consequently, the former slaves weren’t able to pass down a quality education to many students in the next generation.
In 1912, about 27 schools specifically for blacks were in Newton County, and 1,489 children were enrolled in these schools. Some of the common schools for black children included Almon, Butler’s Chapel, Grave’s Chapel, Harwell Hill, Heard’s Chapel, Leguinn, Livingston Chapel, Mansfield, New Hope, Little Bethel, Macedonia, Montgomery, Richard’s Chapel and a number of others. The education level for these schools went to a sixth grade level.
Pitts said the Washington Street School eventually became a high school for children who attended schools at these churches.
"Once you finished the sixth grade, you would have to come to Washington Street School," Pitts said. "For the kids, it was like going off to college because most of the kids and African Americans were out on the farm and they had to room with somebody in town to go to school. I know my mom did and my uncles."
Tragedy struck in 1939 when the school burned down from a cause that was never determined. However, the school was rebuilt in 1941 on School Street and eventually became the Washington Street Community Center.
The Dixie School was the first school built by the county for blacks in the 1950s, a time when the church schools for younger children were being consolidated, Pitts said. Now, children could go to the Dixie School up until sixth grade and then go to Washington Street for high school. A formalized education system was starting to develop.
"[The county] built a little school, a three-room school and [the county] pulled us out of Butler’s Chapel, Grave’s Chapel and a few more churches and put us all in there. That was the first school the county built for us and that had to be about 60 years ago," Pitts said.
Pitts fondly recalled his grade school teacher Miss Emma Jean Williams, who he said is still living today and is a living piece of local history. As for the former Dixie School, it still sits at the same location on Ga. Highway 142, though it’s since been converted into residential housing. When Pitts passes by, he can’t help but think of the past and how he and many others were blessed to go to such a school. Education was a gift that many who went before him never received, but those trailblazers worked hard to make sure life would be better for future generations.
Much of the information for this story came from "Each One, Teach One: The Journey of Washington Street School from 1883 – 2003," which was compiled and written by Flemmie Pitts. A PDF of the full book is attached to this article.