Old Leesburg Elementary and High School in Georgia

Leesburg High School, Leesburg Georgia
Date added: July 29, 2022 Categories: Georgia School
Front facade; photographer facing southeast (2004)

The Leesburg High School complex is located in the city of Leesburg, Georgia, a small county seat town with a population of 2,630 according to the 2000 Census. Leesburg is part of the rural community of Lee County with a population of 24,757 in 2000. There are many historic homes along Main Street, which border the property where the Leesburg High School complex is located.

Leesburg began as a village known as Wooten's Station. When the railroad came through Lee County, Starksville had the only school of any size. It was an old building with no glass windows and poor ventilation. Desks and stools were made of slabs with pegs in each end. The enrollment was small due to limited space and a lack of interest in education. Many residents of Starksville relocated in Leesburg when the county seat was moved in 1872. Soon thereafter the town built a schoolhouse. It had crude plank floors and desks and was named Hillyer Institute. However, it was considered an accomplishment to earn a diploma from this school.

From this building, the school moved to a building that later became the Methodist Church. Although it had poor lighting and no indoor conveniences, it was larger and an improvement over the old facility. In 1905, the Board of Education built a new four-room school building at a cost of approximately $4,000.

The new building soon became overcrowded. When the new courthouse was built downtown the old courthouse was sold to the highest bidder, the Board of Education, to be used as additional classrooms for the school.

Upon the initiative of County Superintendent S. J. Powell, M. L. Duggan and Euri Belle Bolton of G.N.I. College [now Georgia College in Milledgeville, GA] and Supervisor F. E. Land of the State Department of Education conducted a survey of Lee County Public Schools in 1919. At that time the public school system consisted of sixteen school districts, containing nine white and thirty African American schools. The white schools included two high schools, one at Leesburg and one at Smithville, and seven rural schools with one or two teachers each. The school at Leesburg had a faculty of six teachers and the Smithville School had five. Red Bone and New Chokee each had two teachers and the remainder of the rural schools had one teacher. At Leesburg, grades 1 through 6 were housed in the building constructed in 1905 and grades 7 through 11 were housed in the old Courthouse, which was abandoned several years earlier and condemned as "good for nothing but a public schoolhouse." The African American schools were not in session when this survey was made and were therefore not included in the study. There were 600 white school age children in Lee County at the time.

As a result of this study, it was proposed to divide the county into four large school districts with four "live schools," properly housed and well equipped, with transportation provided where needed. The four school districts would be Leesburg, Smithville, Red Bone and Chokee. The study also recommended that bonds be issued to build adequate buildings to house consolidated schools in these districts.

In February of 1920, the Board ordered that the white schools be consolidated into four districts as recommended by the survey. The qualified voters in each school district would decide whether or not bonds would be sold to build consolidated schools in their district. Until new buildings were constructed, existing facilities would continue to be used.

Subsequent to this action, the Smithville School District voted on May 9, 1920, to sell bonds in the amount of $60,000 to build and equip a consolidated school in Smithville to house grades 1 through 11. The Leesburg School District voted on May 19, 1920 to sell $65,000 in bonds to construct and equip a similar facility in Leesburg. On June 3, 1921, a contract for a new school was given to I. P. Crutchfield of Macon, who was the contractor in 1917 for the Lee County Courthouse. The building was to be on the square where the old Callaway Hotel and Salter Building stood. The cost was $65,000. This two-story brick building would be the Leesburg High School.

On February 6, 1922, dedication ceremonies for the new building were held under the direction of Prof. V. P. Folds, principal. Participants on the program included S. J. Powell, Superintendent, W. H. Lunsford, Chairman of the Board of Education, J. W. Pye, J. R. Cowart, S. J. Yeoman and Dr. O. W. Statham, members of the Board, Ware G. Martin, Board attorney and Hon. M. L. Brittain, State Superintendent of Schools. Dr. Brittain, in his speech, stressed consolidation, patriotism, respect and appreciation of good school buildings. He stated that Lee County had made more progress in consolidation than any other county unless it was Webster.

On November 29, 1922 voters in the Red Bone District passed a referendum to sell $12,500 in bonds to build a consolidated school in that district. A bond referendum was never called to build a school for Chokee District. As the small rural schools were closed, one by one, for lack of adequate enrollment, the remaining students were transferred to the Leesburg School. The board later adopted a resolution designating Leesburg High School as the county high school for those districts not providing their own high school.

About 125 pupils were brought to Leesburg from Chokee, Palmyra, Philema, Adams Station, Red Bone, etc. by two new Ford school buses.

The school faculty for that first year (1922) in addition to Principal Folds, included Miss Leila Grimes, Miss Meriam Kittrell, Miss Bess Harris, Miss Flora Edwards, Mrs. Morgan M. Martin, Mrs. T. A. Fowler and Miss Mary Elizabeth Forrester. Seven students graduated in 1922.

Local boards of trustees took an active part in the operation of the schools after consolidation. The qualified voters of the school districts elected trustees.

Indications that the operation of the schools was becoming more complex appear in minutes dated July I, 1926. At that time Superintendent S. J. Powell was authorized to employ a clerk to assist with the financial report and budget. A budget of $46,402.01 was adopted that year.

Little was done towards the improvement of facilities for African American students until 1928. During that period, the Rosenwald Fund was making grants to improve educational opportunities for African Americans throughout the South. Model schoolhouse plans and cash grants were made available to local school systems that would build new schools for African American students. On April 3, 1928, the Board adopted plans and proceeded to build four-classroom schools in Leesburg and Smithville and a three-classroom school in Chokee. The Rosenwald grant was $1,000 each for Leesburg and Smithville and $700 for Chokee. The other money needed was provided from other sources: local donations as well as state funds. The Rosenwald fund was never the entire amount needed to build the school buildings.

The old school building, used in connection with the newer building, lasted until April 1928, when a force of carpenters demolished it to make room for school expansion.

On September 6, 1938 a county-wide referendum was held to determine whether bonds in the amount of $20,000 would be issued for the purpose of erecting and equipping basketball shells (gymnasiums) and vocational agriculture shops at the Leesburg and Smithville white schools. The voters approved the bond referendum 493 to 28. In addition to the bond proceeds, Superintendent S. J. Powell applied for and received a Public Works Administration (PWA) grant in the amount of 45% of cost, not to exceed $16,274 to help finance the building program. The firm, Harding and Ramsey, Inc. submitted the successful bid in the amount of $26,818 to construct the two basketball shells. The $6,060 bid of B. H. Butts, Jr. for the construction of the vocational shops was successful. Upon completion of the basketball shells, the Board voted to collect 50% of all gate receipts to pay for maintenance, lights and water. The basketball shells were necessary or brought on because of the growing interest in basketball in the 1930s.

During World War II, schools participated in the collection of scrap rubber and aluminum. A home defense program was authorized in Leesburg and Smithville. Basketball shells were made available for monthly drills by a home defense unit. Volunteers taught the fundamentals of close order drill to high school students and adults. Both students and staff felt very much a part of the war effort.

In 1942, Superintendent S. J. Powell died in office and the Board of Education elected Hugh T. Kearse as the new superintendent. He served in this capacity until his retirement on January 31, 1964.

In 1942 lunchrooms co-sponsored by the Board of Education and local PTAs began operating at the Leesburg and Smithville white schools. By using government provided commodities and charging 10 cents per meal, which could be paid in cash or with home grown meats, meal, flour or vegetables, and with assistance from the co-sponsors, a hot lunch at school was made available to the students. Later state and federal funds were put into the program, resulting in its rapid expansion.

In August 1944, the Board passed a resolution to discontinue operation of the Red Bone school because of low enrollment. The students were assigned and transported to the Leesburg School.

In March 1946, the Board adopted a resolution expressing regret for the illness of Gus Homer who worked on the construction of the Leesburg School and who remained on as a faithful janitor for 24 years.

In the mid 1940's discussions began concerning the consolidation of the high school grades of the Leesburg and Smithville white schools. Because of the small enrollment and limited programs offered at the two schools, and problems staying accredited, it was suggested that a county high school located at Leesburg could better serve the students.

This suggestion was met with strong opposition from many patrons of the Smithville School. Because of this opposition, no action to consolidate was made until August 5, 1947, when, at the urging of Superintendent H. T. Kearse, the Lee County Board of Education, by resolution, consolidated the two high schools at Leesburg, so as to have one accredited high school in the county. The name, Lee County High School, was given to the school. The decision to consolidate was appealed to the State Board of Education, the Superior Court and to the Georgia Supreme Court without success. Smithville students in grades 1 through 7 continued to attend school at the newly re-named Smithville Elementary School.

A group of Smithville residents, learning that the consolidated school would be in Leesburg, secured an injunction, signed by Judge W. M. Harper in Americus, delaying the opening of the schools until the matter could be resolved. The dispute was decided on September 12, 1947, by the State Board of Education, which, in a unanimous ruling, upheld the action of the Lee County Board of Education in merging the Leesburg and Smithville High Schools into one consolidated unit in Leesburg. The next day, the injunction was heard in Judge Harper's Court, which decreed that the two schools would consolidate in Leesburg as the Lee County High School, while the Smithville school would become the Smithville Elementary School. Schools opened immediately after the ruling. After a harmonious term, eighteen boys and girls, members of the largest graduating class in the history of Lee County, received their diplomas on May 28, 1948.

The 1947-48 term was the first for a countywide white high school. It also marked the beginning of the transition period for adding the twelfth grade to the high school program. This transition was completed four years later, with a consolidated high school and a 12 year program, the school began a period of growth that resulted in the construction of a number of new buildings on that campus over the next 30 years.

In June 1952, Superintendent Kearse presented the recommendations of a State Survey Committee to the Board. The committee recommended consolidating all white schools in Leesburg as soon as the Board deemed closing the Smithville Elementary School advisable. It also recommended consolidating all African American schools into one center consisting of a combination elementary and high school to be located at Leesburg.

The Board adopted these recommendations and instructed the superintendent to apply for funds from the State School Building Authority to construct a new consolidated school for African American students. The school was completed in 1955 and named Lee County Training School. It resulted in the consolidation of the following small schools: Adams, Chokee, Eagle, Pond, Haley, Hutchinson, Jordan Grove, Lee County Training, Macedonia, Mt. Able, Mt. Hope, Mt. Middleton, Mt. Pleasant, New Beulah, Palmyra, Philema, Philip Grove, Pine Grove, Scrutchens, Smithville, St. John, St. Matthew, Stocks, Stovall, Waters Crossing and Jerusalem.

With the opening of Lee County Training School, bus transportation was provided for African American students. E. R. (Red) Willie, of Blue Bird Body Co., conducted a transportation survey to aid in routing 16 new buses that the Board purchased to serve the new school.

On January 1, 1965, Hugh T. Kearse retired as superintendent and Robert A. Clay, Jr. was sworn in as his successor. It soon became apparent that the low enrollment at Smithville Elementary School would necessitate its closing. The Board agreed to close this school at the end of the 1964-65 term and transport the students to Leesburg. Also apparent in early 1965 was the determination of the federal government to integrate white and African American schools. The first integration occurred in Lee County when three black senior girls enrolled in Lee County High School at the beginning of the 1965-66 term under a freedom-of-choice plan. This pattern continued for the next five years with a few more transfers occurring each year. During this period, the federal government initiated the Title I program, a multi-billion dollar program to aid in the education of disadvantaged students throughout the nation. Lee County participated in this program and in other programs designed to improve educational opportunities for its students. Programs to serve handicapped students were also started in the late 1960's.

The beginning of the 1970-71 term brought a dramatic change in the organization of Lee County Schools. Under a federal court order, the two existing schools, Lee County High School and Lee County Training School, were reorganized to bring about complete integration. Under the integration plan approved by the court, Lee County High School housed all students, both white and black, in grades 1 through 3 and 9 through 12. This campus was divided into two administrative units with grades 1 through 3 designated as Lee County Elementary School and grades 9 through 12 designated as Lee County High School. Each school had its own principal and staff and occupied separate classroom buildings. The Lee County Training School facility was renamed Lee County Upper Elementary School and housed grades 4 through 8. Although the complete integration of schools was faced with apprehension, it was accomplished with a minimum of difficulty. Responsible citizens of both races were instrumental in seeing that the reorganization was a success.

Soon after the schools were integrated it became apparent that additional classrooms would be needed. Faced with an increase in enrollment nearly every year and with the initiation of new programs in vocational education and special education and the beginning of public kindergarten for 5 year olds, the Board requested the State Department of Education to conduct a Comprehensive Survey of Lee County's educational needs. The survey was completed and the resulting recommendation was to construct a new comprehensive high school to house grades 9 through 12. Grades 5 through 8 would be housed at Lee County Upper Elementary School. The old facilities were occupied by Lee County Elementary School that at this time included grades K through 4.

The Board adopted these recommendations. Through the assistance of Oscar Joiner, Associate State Superintendent of Schools, Lee County qualified for slightly over $1,600,000 in State funds to construct the proposed facility. A bond referendum for $975,000 was passed in 1974 to provide the required local participation in the cost of the project. Architect Richard V. Richard developed plans and specifications for the building. Alcon Associates, Inc. submitted the low construction bid and was awarded a contract to build the facility. It was completed and first occupied at the beginning of the 1977-78 school term.

Continued growth in the system has made additional new construction and renovation necessary. In 1981, a new cafeteria was completed at Lee County Elementary School, a new music facility and library at Lee County Upper Elementary School and a 10-classroom addition at Lee County High School. Also in that year, the old library at the Upper Elementary School was renovated for use as an art room. In 1982 renovation was completed on the original two-story building (completed in 1922) at Lee County Elementary School. The old cafeteria was also renovated for use by the school administration.

The Lee County Elementary School, before it closed, consisted of kindergarten through fourth grade. Its facilities include the old two-story Lee County High School building constructed in 1921-22, many additions that were added with the growth of Lee County, and a new lunchroom built in 1981-82. The offices are housed in the original lunchroom that was renovated in the spring of 1982.

Before it closed, approximately eleven hundred sixty-five students attended Lee County Elementary School. Sixty-eight teachers and seventeen aides ably taught there.

The building was used for educational purposes until 2002, when the building no longer met federal guidelines for use as a school.

The Lee County Board of Commissioners took ownership of the Historic Leesburg High School in 2002. A historically sensitive rehabilitation and renovation for use as office and meeting space was planned.

In 2004, the school received a Georgia Heritage Grant in 2004 for a preservation plan for the main school building.