Several Cultures, One Goal
Luther Bryan Clegg, a professor of education at Texas Christian University, wrote in his well received tribute to early Texas education, The
Empty Schoolhouse, that "schools reflect, and have always reflected, the society and times in which they operate." Nothing could be more
true when looking at schools within the Red River Valley.
A Noble Mission
The mission of every school, whether in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, or Texas, was unanimous: to provide every student who came to
school the opportunity to learn. Prior to laws establishing public funds for schools, communities paid for education themselves. In many
towns around the Red River, however, schools were by subscription: a family paid to send their child to a school that used a private (and
often Christian-focused) curriculum. Public school teachers' salaries often consisted of livestock, vegetable harvests, and free room and
board instead of a salary. The school building often doubled as the community church. If the teacher got sick, married, or became
otherwise indisposed, the school year would end just like that. Time in school was cut short, anyway, for fall harvest and spring planting.
Things got a little easier (but not by much) when public trust funds were established to secure state-wide education. In Texas, this
happened in 1854; in Oklahoma, the Organic Act, which created Oklahoma Territory - separate from the eastern Indian Nations - guaranteed
school funding in 1890. However, it was really after the Civil War that public schooling became an ingrained, mandatory cultural feature in
Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.
The public funds weren't evenly disbursed, however. Rural schools by default always received less money - and schools for African
Americans even less. To correct this, the Rosenwald family of Chicago established the Rosenwald Foundation, which opened over 5,300
schools around the south and southwestern U.S. to counteract the deleterious effects of a racist school system. In Texas and Oklahoma,
Rosenwald schools were established in several Red River Valley counties, such as Bowie, McCurtain, Pushmataha, Red River, Fannin,
Latimer, Murray, and even as far west as Tillman. As schools were later integrated (and children were forced to attend schools farther
away), many African Americans communities succumbed as their schools closed.
Desegregation in the Red River Valley
After 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that "separate but equal" was unconstitutional, schools were supposed to become
racially integrated. That occurred under severe racist backlash, however, including in the Red River Valley. Most integration had to occur
via federal court order and, ultimately, federal oversight to ensure compliance. Robeline (Natchitoches Parish, LA), for example, was
integrated by court order in 1980. The town closed its school down rather than have African American students attend it. This meant that
students, both black and white, had to be ferried to neighboring towns for their education. Other cities avoided these troubles, however.
In Denton (Denton County, TX), mothers banned together to make sure integration would occur peacefully, and it did.
Schools of Assimilation
Native Americans, like the Choctaws and Chickasaws had to abandon their traditional forms of education - learning from parents and
elders - in order to survive in the white man's world. As early as 1821, the tribes established missionary schools in Mississippi, which they
opened again after their removal to Indian Territory. American policy forced separation of Indian children from their parents to "assimilate"
into the Anglo world; thus, the Choctaws and Chickasaws opened boarding schools. Armstrong Academy opened in 1843 in Bokchito (Bryan
County), then was superseded by the Calvin Institute (renamed Presbyterian College) in Durant. By the 1930s, Progressive leaders of the
Choctaw and Chickasaw nations disbanded the academies in favor of public school systems.
We Love Our Teachers
The one-room schoolhouse was the staple of the educational landscape in the Red River Valley. Teachers would sometimes face up to fifty
students per day (even more if the weather was bad and the farm couldn't be worked). Along with these eager minds came the pranks -
and lots of discipline. Unlike today, teachers had free range when it came to meting out punishment, though that didn't mean the teachers
enjoyed doling it out. Many students from those long-ago schools tell that their teachers were mostly kind. Often, the teacher proved to be
the only adult children actually trusted.
A Disappearing Act
The little old school houses that banded communities together are rapidly disappearing. One-room buildings are gone, of course - but
even the larger schools that serve smaller communities are being consolidated to oblivion. Education has become just another big
government concern, where each school actually competes with the other so that "no child gets left behind"- in effect, what really gets
left behind is a sense of belonging. Most communities that see their schools close become ghost towns.
Schools are American culture's way of staying connected. Wherever a school remains, there remains a viable community. I say let's praise
our schools, even if some of us tend to get the hives thinking about our school days. When we preserve our schools, we ensure our
|Bucher school, a ghost town in northern Cooke County, Texas. It has since caved in.
|The defunct Dundee school in Archer County, Texas is still quite sturdy.
|Abandoned Spanish Fort school from 1924, Montague County, Texas
The freedman's "seemingly unquenchable thirst for education":
"A negro riding on a loaded wagon, or sitting on a hack waiting for a train, or by the cabin door, is often seen, book in hand
delving after the rudiments of knowledge. A group on the platform of a depot, after carefully conning [cradling] an old spelling
book, resolves itself into a class." Freedmen Bureau Officer observation, as recounted by Eric Foner in "A Short History of
Reconstruction" (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), p.43
Assimilation In Indian Schools
"One day when we came to school there was a lot of writing on the blackboards. We did not know what it meant, but our
interpreter came into the room and said, "Do you see all these marks on the blackboard? Well, each word is a white man's name.
They are going to give each one of you one of these names by which you will hereafter be known."
The teacher had a long pointed stick in her hand, and the interpreter told the boy in the front seat to come up. The Teacher
handed the stick to the him, and the interpreter then told him to pick out any name...When my turn came, I took the pointer and
acted as if I were about to touch an enemy." Luther Standing Bear, My People the Sioux (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928). Excerpted
from "Our Hearts Fell to the Ground: Plains Indians Views of How the West Was Lost," by Colin G. Calloway (Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin's
Press, 1996), p. 173.
|Getting Smart: Red River Schoolin'
|St. Matthew's School served the children of Creole families along the Cane River in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. Built in 1954, it closed in
the late 1970s after Parish officials, in complying with federal desegregation orders, created consolidated school districts.
|The old high school in Boyce (Rapides Parish, Louisiana) has gotten new life as a city hall after a more modern building was erected. This
picture is not city hall, of course - it's a remnant of the school beside the reconverted buildings.
|The school in Robeline (Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana) closed under backlash due to federal desegregation orders in 1981. The first orders
were passed in 1970. Robeline school was designated to serve students in the middle grades (Robertson v. Natchitoches School Board, 5th
Circuit Court of Appeals). Apparently, the town balked, and new desegregation orders were introduced in 1981.
|Some of the Red River Valley's oldest schools are boarding schools erected inside the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, like Wheelock.
|The Frederick Douglass School in Ardmore, which served black children during segregation, is now a community center.
|Abandoned Lincoln High School for African American students in Washington, Arkansas. Many southern schools in smaller town closed due to
desegration and loss of population.
|The old school in Garland, Arkansas had separate entrances for girls and boys - most likely to prevent hair pulling, maybe?
|The Aaron school on the prairie in Jackson County, Oklahoma still has its storm shelter (very much needed in tornado alley).
|This elementary school in Humphreys, Jackson County, Oklahoma was state-of-the-art when it opened in the 1940s. By the 1960s, it closed due
to population loss. Across the school, which is now used for agricultural storage, was the "teacherage" - a home for teachers to entice them to
live on the prairie.