Abandoned two room schoolhouse in MS

Poplar Hill Grade School, Fayette Mississippi
Date added: May 18, 2023 Categories: Mississippi School
South and East elevations, camera facing northwest (2009)

The Poplar Hill Grade School is a local example of a rural school built between c.1923 to serve the African American community of Jefferson County, Mississippi. This school remained open from about 1923 until September 1957. Poplar Hill Grade School is the only surviving two room school house in Jefferson County, Mississippi.

Mississippi began public education in 1821 by an act of the Mississippi Legislature. This legislative act also established a "Literacy Fund" to provide school tuition for indigent children. Under this legislation, education was only for those of the White population. African American children were not given the opportunity to receive a public education until after the Civil War. The Mississippi Constitution of 1868 was the first legislation that provided free public education of all children regardless of race. Article VIII, Sections 1-9 established "a uniform system of free public schools, by taxation or otherwise, for all children between the ages of five and twenty-one years..." In 1870 legislation was passed to create county school districts under the supervision of an elected state Superintendent of Education who then appointed local county superintendents.

Revenue raised by the sale or lease of 16th Section lands was the funding source for the county schools. One more additional source of school funding that existed was a poll tax of two dollars per person. It was levied for the specific use of public education. With white control of predominantly black counties, much of the monies earmarked for the African American schools were given to the white schools. This created a "double tax" for those in the African American community first paying the poll tax and then having to raise additional monies to support their schools. The land on which Poplar Hill School was built is 16 Section Land.

In 1868, Medora Dubs Scott Butler bequeathed the land where Poplar Hill Church and School are located to the African Church. In her last will and testament, Mrs. Butler speaks of the gift given to the African church stating, "It is my wish that the four acres of land given to the African Church by me shall belong to them as long as the same is used for the purpose of a church site." As with many rural communities during this time period, churches took on the responsibility of the education of the children within the local community. Poplar Hill African Methodist Episcopal Church established the school in about 1877 with the classes held in the church building. Between 1894 and 1895 the church built a school for the children of Poplar Hill Plantation and the surrounding area. It is believed that the school was demolished and the current building constructed c. 1923.

In 1877, P. K. Whitney was appointed Superintendent of Education of Jefferson County. Suggestions made by P. K. Whitney at the meeting of the Board of Supervisors in January 1878 were as follows:

"The opening of 22 white and 26 colored schools... The term be set at five months with daily attendance be fixed at 8 pupils for white and 24 for colored schools..."
The law was clear that the church may not control funding but the church often provided donations and moral guidance for the students. The governance of Poplar Hill School was completely controlled by the local county superintendent. Under the Mississippi State Constitution of 1890 Article VIII, Section 207:
"Separate schools shall be maintained for children of the white and colored races." Poplar Hill School was always an African American public school; initially (about 1870 to 1895) the students were taught in the Poplar Hill African Methodist Episcopal Church. The first teacher that we are able to document that taught at Poplar Hill was Elvira Ellis Jackson (1857-1925). Her Grade of License was 2, the P. O. Address: Fayette, License Number Schools Scholastic year 1896 to 1897" (Transcribed by: Ann Brown, Fayette, MS) schools were listed by race first then alphabetically by name of school. Poplar Hill is shown in this report as follows:
Poplar Hill School District T9N R1E,
Location: Harper's place, House built of plank,
Trustees: Gibson Starks, J. R. Thomas, and Scott Hamilton,
P. O. of Secretary: Fayette,
Teacher: E. E. Jackson,
School opened: 02 Nov 1896, School closed: 05 Mar 1897,
Children Enumeration: M - 112, F - 122, Total: 234
Enrolled: M - 34, F - 44, Total: 78
Avg. Attend: M - 21, F - 25, Total: 46.

School Board Minutes show the Negro Schools in alphabetical order. Notation that the "Winter School is to start the first Monday in November 1897. The summer starts 1st Monday in May 1897. J. Rives Wade, Ex Officio President and Secretary."

Elvira Ellis Jackson was a former slave. She is described by her granddaughter as "...One of the first Negro Educators of South Mississippi, she was loved, respected, and honored by the entire Poplar Hill Community." Included in the "Record of Monthly and Term Report of Public Schools Scholastic year 1896 to 1897" is a list of teachers attending the summer training institute. Mrs. Elvira Jackson and her daughter Henrietta were listed as having attended the teacher training institute. Established by Superintendent Whitfield in 1904, these training sessions/institutes were given during the summer months. According to a report titled Giving A Voice to a Shared Past: Public Education and (De)segregation in Mississippi, 1868-2000 -- Part II - Sustaining the Infrastructure of Public Education: 1900-1953,

In spite of the prevailing attitudes of many in state government toward free black public schools, positive reforms were enacted which contributed to the elevation of standards for both white and black students. Governor Vardaman's State Superintendent of Public Education, Henry L. Whitfield, who later served as governor from 1923-1927, identified teacher training as a major concern in the state. Although Governor Vardaman closed the only teacher training college for black teachers in 1904, Superintendent Whitfield helped to offset the effect by opening teacher training institutes across the state which were conducted during the summer months. This made it possible for more teachers, black and white, to receive training on the high school and college level.

In 1917, Julius Rosenwald created the Rosenwald Rural School Building Program. This program was designed to improve the quality of public education and improve school facilities for African American children. By 1928, one in every five rural schools for African American students in the South was a Rosenwald school. Poplar Hill School was one of the selected schools to participate in this program. The Fisk University Rosenwald Fund Card File Database establishes that Poplar Hill was identified to receive a grant of $700 from the fund in 1923-24. In addition to the $700 from the Rosenwald fund, there were contributions from Negroes: $733.00, Whites: $325.00, and the Public: $215.00 for a total budget of $1,973. However, in the 1934 "Report of Rosenwald Schools" written by the school superintendents for each county reporting on the progress at each school, the entry for the Poplar Hill School states "There were no Rosenwald funds paid on this building." Additionally, it was noted that in 1929 Mr. Bura Hilbun, State Supervisor of Rural Negro Schools, embezzled not only the money earmarked for Poplar Hill but the money of a number of the rural Negro schools in Mississippi. Mr. Hilbun was sentenced to 5 years in the penitentiary, by Justice W. D. Anderson of Hinds County, and served 2.5 years. As tragic as this embezzlement was to the everyday operations of Poplar Hill School, it was not unusual. Often funds earmarked for African American schools were misappropriated and used for white schools. Regardless of the funding source, the current building was built at approximately that time.

State and local records identify many of the teachers who taught at Poplar Hill School over the years. They include Mrs. Elvira Ellis Jackson, who began teaching in the church building in 1877 at the existing school building from about 1895-1923. Other teachers include Ms. Henrietta Jackson Smith (1896 - 1940), Mrs. Mattie Milton (1937-1940), Ms. Lethie Green (early 1940s), Ms. Bessie Lyas Kates (1941 - 1945), Ms. Virginia Roanne Thomas (1942- 1946), Ms. Lula Bell Jackson (1942 - 1943) (1945 - 1946), Ms. Alma Page (1944 - 1946), Ms. Ruth Hall (1944 - 1946), Mrs. Sarah Hall Jackson (1948 - 1949), Ms. Helen Riley (c. 1950), Ms. Thelma Jackson (c. 1950):Ms. Mildred Turner (c. 1953): Ms. Sadie Fells (c. 1953), Ms. Hattie Belle Haley (1950's): and Ms. Naomi Hill.

In an interview with Sarah Hall Jackson, a former teacher of Poplar Hill School, she mentioned that when she arrived in 1948 at the school there were no blackboards and very few school supplies were available most of the time. Books for the students in the rural black schools were not provided until the 6 grade. African American students had to pay to use the used textbooks which came from the white schools in the area. Several students who attended Poplar Hill have said that the books they received were damaged but the damage was not noted at the time of payment. Once the book was returned to the school a fee was assessed for the damage. In another interview with a former teacher of Poplar Hill School she described the subjects that were taught as: citizenship, mathematics, English, literature, history, and science.

The school building was described in a 1955 county-wide school survey conducted by the Department of Educational Administration at the Mississippi Southern College (now University of Southern Mississippi):

Poplar Hill is a two-teacher school teaching grades 1 through 8 for eight months. The average daily attendance for 1953-54 was 65. This building is frame type construction in poor condition. It was painted yellow at one time. It has a metal roof which leaks. The windows are small and inadequate and some of the panes are out. The walls are wide planks in poor condition, but were painted at one time. The building is heated by a wood stove in poor condition. There is one light in each room. The furniture is homemade benches in poor condition (pp. 65, 67).

There was only one school for students to transfer to after attending and graduating from Poplar Hill and that was the Jefferson County Training School (1920s - 1957) in Fayette which offered only grades 9-10-11. The Liddell High School was a 4-year high school that opened in 1952 and was the first new school construction in many years. It later became a junior high school.

Schools before consolidation were always composed of the children in the nearby plantation/farming communities; if the community was largely African American the school reflected that and the same was true for the white rural areas. After the Brown vs. The Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas decision was made many of the rural schools were closed. In September 1957, all grade schools in rural areas of Jefferson County were closed and consolidated. The children were then enrolled at the New Liddell Grade School in the City of Fayette.

Poplar Hill School was used by the church for social gatherings and church meetings both before consolidation and for several years after.

The 1955 county school survey identified twenty-eight schools for black students, of which 10 were privately owned (usually by churches) and 18 publicly owned (p. 53). A survey of historic schools conducted by Mississippi Dept. of Archives and History architectural historians from 1999-2004 found that of this number, only four rural schools still stood. Only long abandoned Forty Hills School, a one-classroom school also located near a church, seems to be maintained and cared for. Given the once ubiquitous nature of these small rural schools, and their present extreme rarity, the survival of two buildings in the same county is a condition almost unknown in the state.

Building Description

Poplar Hill Grade School is a one-story wood frame building with a side-gable metal roof. It is located on the property of the Poplar Hill African Methodist Episcopal Church in a rural area of Jefferson County, Mississippi, approximately 4.5 miles from the county seat, Fayette, Mississippi. The school is on the north side of the Poplar Hill Road (formerly known as Lorman - Poplar Hill Road). The church building is to the east of the school and does not block the view of the school from Poplar Hill Road. A semi-circle drive leads to the front entrance of the school. The school is surrounded by a lawn with woods about 150 feet to the north and about 25 feet to the west. The front of the school faces south toward the road, and is located 168 feet from the Poplar Hill Road. The church cemetery is about 65 feet to the east.

The building was constructed in c. 1923 with locally available materials by members of the Poplar Hill AME Church. The building is rectangular in shape and the dimensions are 39' x 23', which creates 897 square feet of usable space. Simple in design, Poplar Hill School is a one-story wood frame building with stone footings. It is clad with drop siding and topped with a gable metal roof. On the south facade, three concrete steps lead up to a porch sheltered under a metal-hipped roof supported by six two-by-four posts, four across the front edge of the porch and two against the front wall of the building. Two five-panel wood doors under the porch roof provide access to the building. Pairs of double-hung-sash 4/4 wood windows flank the doors. There are no openings on the east or west elevations. Four double-hung-sash 4/4 windows are equally spaced across the north side of the building. All the windows are believed to be original to the building, although some glass panes may have been replaced. The doors were probably replaced for safety purposes.

The interior is one large open space. A center partition, a wooden sliding door, could be closed to create two classrooms, or left open for social gatherings or church meetings. The ceiling is tongue and groove planks and has sustained some water damage as a result of roof leaks. The walls are covered by wood planks 8" wide x 2" thick x 16' long. The floor is tongue and groove pine planks. There are small storage closets in the northeast and southeast corners with access only from the inside. The doors are still attached to the closets with small shelves in place. Some of the original latches on the cabinetry are also still in place. An elevated teaching platform of about a 4" inch rise is on the west end of the room. Blackboards were on the walls of the school room however those have been removed. The podiums, school benches, and tables remain inside the schoolhouse.

During the late 1950s, the owners removed the center room divider to open up the room for social gatherings and church meetings. The only other significant change would be to the old-fashioned heating system. A wood-burning stove was removed and replaced with a more modern propane heating system. Currently there is no functioning heating or air conditioning system in the school. The school never had indoor plumbing. The outhouse, located to the north of the building, is no longer in existence.

Poplar Hill Grade School, Fayette Mississippi South elevation, camera facing northwest (2009)
South elevation, camera facing northwest (2009)

Poplar Hill Grade School, Fayette Mississippi South and East elevations, camera facing northwest (2009)
South and East elevations, camera facing northwest (2009)

Poplar Hill Grade School, Fayette Mississippi North elevation, camera facing south (2009)
North elevation, camera facing south (2009)

Poplar Hill Grade School, Fayette Mississippi North West elevations, camera facing southeast (2009)
North West elevations, camera facing southeast (2009)

Poplar Hill Grade School, Fayette Mississippi Interior, West wall, camera facing northwest (2009)
Interior, West wall, camera facing northwest (2009)

Poplar Hill Grade School, Fayette Mississippi Interior, North and East walls, camera facing northeast (2009)
Interior, North and East walls, camera facing northeast (2009)

Poplar Hill Grade School, Fayette Mississippi Interior, West wall, camera facing west (2009)
Interior, West wall, camera facing west (2009)

Poplar Hill Grade School, Fayette Mississippi Interior, East wall, camera facing east (2009)
Interior, East wall, camera facing east (2009)