Few institutions capture the pulse, pride and devotion of a community like a school. For the black community in Rockdale and Conyers, the struggle for education reflected the larger struggle for equality in society at large. But schools also reflected the brightest hopes and aspirations of the black community.
For black residents of a certain age living in the county between 1950 and 1970, after which schools were fully integrated, education meant the JP Carr School.
But even before the JP Carr School, there was the Bryant Street School, located on the corner of Bryant Street and Dogwood Drive. Also called the Conyers Colored School or Colored Children's School and officially named the Bryant Street School in 1948, it was the only school for black children that offered grades up through ninth grade.
Black children in the younger grades attended church schools all the way up until the 1950s - long after most church schools had been phased out for white children - such the ones at Rock Temple AME, Macedonia Baptist, White's Chapel United Methodist, and Pleasant Hill CME. A 1905 list of schools in the county has 14 white schools and 14 black schools listed in the county, according to "A History of Rockdale County." In order to receive schooling in the upper grades or to graduate high school, they would have to go to Fort Valley, Ga. or to Atlanta.
Grover Simmons, who one of seven students in the last graduating class from the Bryant Street School in 1949 and went on to attend college, recalled his two older sisters were sent to board with families in Atlanta so they could attend high school.
The wooden building that housed the Bryant Street School, built sometime in the 1930s, had three rooms and heated by a pot-bellied stove and reportedly lit by lamps brought by the students and their parents.
Conyers resident Lucy Loyd remembered it as a "raggedy old building." As a child, she remembered walking by the brick-built school for white children on Main Street and wondering why she couldn't go there instead.
Conyers City Councilman Cleveland Stroud recalled that the building had no indoor plumbing and students had to use public outhouses down below the school. In the older grades, there were usually more girls than boys because the boys would be pulled out to work.
Later, right after WWII around 1946, parents in the community brought an old shotgun-style army barracks and put them next to the existing building, finally giving each of the higher grades a room of their own.
"From what we had, it was an improvement," said Stroud, "Looking back on it, it was deplorable. But at that time, it was an improvement over what we had." There were two school busses driven by the principal J.P. Godfrey, to pick up students that lived outside the city limits.
In 1948, members of the community went before the school board to request a new building. Principal W.D. Tolbert, who had replaced Godfrey that year, also requested space for a library, lunchroom, additional desks, and funds for an athletic director, requests that were apparently turned down because he would come before the board again with such requests.
"He was way ahead of his time; he didn't last very long," said Stroud. "Tolbert was a younger guy, out of Savannah State College. He had all these modern ideas, that we should have new books, chalkboards... Unheard of."
In 1950, "a small group of men sworn to secrecy" set fire to the buildings in the early morning hours of March 5, according to an article "The Education of Black Children in Rockdale County: The First 50 Years" by E.R. Shipp in the "Heritage of Rockdale County."
Church schools, such as Pleasant Hill CME, Rock Temple AME and Macedonia Baptist stepped in to temporarily take the displaced children of the Bryant Street School while a more permanent solution was found.
In April 1950, a $50,000 bond issue was passed to build a consolidated school for black children, an unprecedented step in the state at the time. The bond reportedly passed with support from the Conyers Lions Club and Conyers Methodist Church.
Much of the land for new school, which was still called the Bryant Street School, was purchased at a heavily discounted price from the Turner family, along with other landowners. J.P. Carr was a stonemason who donated a small portion of land where the gymnasium would eventually be built. The school was named after Carr in 1958.
Tolbert was replaced as the principal in 1951 by George L. Edwards, Jr, who remained as the principal until integration.
Stroud credited Tolbert with bringing up the level of black education by bringing in a new wave of college-educated teachers, especially male teachers, and a new level of education and exposure outside the classroom, such as taking field trips.
"We had never seen, other than the principal, a black man with a college education on a daily basis," said Stroud. "They commanded respect, demanded respect, gave respect back to you. We had never been subjected to that before."
The new teachers were also specialized in their fields. "If I had a math problem, I could go to my teacher, but many times my teacher didn't know much more about it than I did. But when Sam Lester came, and Jim Hardwick came, you could go to them and they would guide you. They wouldn't give you the answer, but they would guide you in finding the solution to whatever problem that you had. So we just idolized those guys."
When students found out Tolbert's contract would not be renewed, the older students went out and picketed the administration building.
Stroud, who was in sixth grade at the time, vividly recalled the incident. "We marched down there scared to death. But we went. Had no problems, really."
"We knew what Mr. Tolbert was trying to do for us. We were just beginning to see the light, so to speak; to see the importance of education, which had never been shown to us. Not on this scale."
The new school, which would be called the JP Carr School, continued to expand. Church schools were ended after the JP Carr school was built. Enrollment was reported at 565 students in 1954.
Along with more professionally trained teachers, bands, clubs and sports teams, a new high school wing with a science lab, home economics room and carpentry shop was opened in time for the 1957-1958 school year, according to "The Heritage of Rockdale County." The gymnasium was built in 1961. Prior to that, the basketball team had played its home games in Newton County.
"Every step up has been a big deal," said Stroud. "It's been a gradual process to get to where we've gotten today. It wasn't easy, it wasn't pretty, it wasn't rapid. But one thing that it taught me, it taught me a lot of patience."
In 1965, after an executive order, Freedom of Choice began and a few black students enrolled in white schools.
Aubrey Webb was one of about 16 students that enrolled and he, along with Veronica Lester, became one of the first black students to graduate from Rockdale High School. "I was the experiment," he said. "It was a great experience. Met some great people. Lifelong friends."
Rockdale schools were fully integrated in 1969 and the JP Carr school became a middle school but sat empty for a number of years after that and closed sometime in the 1980s.
The county proposed building a new community center and administrative building using $6.5 million SPLOST funding. The JP Carr Center opened in 2009 and now houses the Veteran's Services administration offices and Rockdale County Public Health Department.