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Wolverine Gym recognized for history
Recreation commission receives national award for restoration
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Before R.L. Cousins high school opened in January 1957, black education in Newton County had a varied history.

Area churches were responsible for education through much of 19th century, before a couple of worked together to build the original Washington Street School in 1884, local historian Flemmie Pitts said.

Originally, the school went up to the 7th grade, but eventually expanded to the 11th grade after the turn of the century.

The school was burned down in the 1939, and rebuilt in its current location on School Street in 1941.

For a period during the 1900s, Newton County had a handful of Rosenwald schools, a collaborative effort between Sears and Roebuck co-owner Julius Rosenwald and black educator Booker T. Washington. Pitts said some of them were primarily grammar schools.

In 1970, the black and white school systems were integrated into a single public education system.

For a historian like Flemmie Pitts, being able to walk into the renovated Wolverine Gym is an experience to treasure.

The gym served R.L. Cousins High School, the pinnacle of all-black education in Newton County.

The school was the launching pad for the local civil rights movement, while the gym was home to the 1964 Wolverines basketball team, the runner-up in the Georgia Interscholastic Association state final. The site is rich in history.

Yet, the school, gym and football field were nearly torn down when they were no longer deemed useful. That's when the Arnold Fund stepped in and partnered with the non-profit Cousins Community Center, which was formed specifically to save the historical site.

First the high school was turned into a business complex, hosting a department of driver's services branch, the 911 communications center and Troy University during the years. With Troy leaving, the juvenile court system will be using the space.

Wolverine Field was renovated and opened in September 2009, and finally Cousins Gym had its grand reopening in January of this year. During basketball season, children and adults can be found playing in the same building that housed Newton's historic black teams of old.

For saving such a valuable piece of history, the Newton County Recreation Commission received the 2011 Historical/Cultural Facility Award from the National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials.

Using $500,000 in SPLOST money and a grant from the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation, the county was able to replace the backboards, rims and basketball court, refurbish the stands, install air condition and hearting, add two offices and fixtures and toilets in the bathrooms and convert the old shower/locker room into a large storage room for football gear.

The court will eventually have a new logo and be renamed Jimmy Wright court, in honor of the coach who led that 1964 state runner up team.

"This was Jimmy's gym," Recreation Director Tommy Hailey said.

Pitts recalled how former Cousins basketball star Johnny Johnson, who played under Wright on the 1964 team and now lives in Pennsylvania, brought his children back to the gym for its reopening.

"There are lots of grads who get to come back here, and it's great that people like Johnny Johnson can bring their kids back here," Pitts said. "His daughter asked him how he graduated from a middle school."

Her confusion was natural. Following the integration of the public school in 1971, R.L. Cousins was turned into a middle school. When a new middle school was built across the street, the building and gym laid empty for years.

Now they're thriving again.