Booker T. Washington
School








The Sentinel
February 20, 2006

Washington among early
city schools

Two-Room School -- This photograph shows 
Booker T. Washington School
       as it looked in 1904, six years after it was built 
at Eleventh and Vaught. 
       The school provided for the education of Mt. Vernon's 
black students at a 
       time when public schools were segregated. 
       The curriculum at Washington school was similar 
to that of other area schools.
       Submitted Photo/Tom Puckett
By Dede Heider Haselton
Sentinel News Staff

 In Mt. Vernon's early days, segregation kept most black students out of the public schools, 
but that did not keep black families from seeking an education for their children.
   
 The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church on Grand Avenue became the home of Mt. Vernon's  
first school for black children in 1894, with A. Y. King as the teacher, according to local historian 
Tom Puckett.
   
 Two years after it's beginnings, the school moved from the church to a building on Twelfth and 
Vaught, and then moved again two years later.
     
 A two-room school was built at Eleventh and Vaught, and classes began in 1898, Puckett said. 
The school was named Booker T. Washington School in honor of the founder and president of 
Tuskegee Institute.
    
 King, who had been with the school from the beginning, became the principal and held that position 
until his retirement in 1907, according to the book, "A History of Education in Jefferson County."
A man by the name of Major Singleton was chosen to be the next principal, although he had not even 
applied for the position, the book states.
     
 School enrollment grew continually, until by 1909, the 103 students could barely fit in the two-room 
schoolhouse. Singleton convinced the public of the need for more room and more teachers. The school
board began taking bids in 1914 to build two additional classrooms and a basement onto the existing
building. When the project was complete, two more teachers were hired. The enrollment by that time 
had grown to 125 students, Puckett said.
   
 The the depression hit. In 1929, Washington School lost one of it's four teachers and struggled to 
keep going, Puckett said.
     
 Singleton retired in 1935 after 28 years as principal, according to the history of education book.
The book states, "It can well be said of him that he worked not alone for salary but love for his 
work and a desire to be of benefit to his pupils, his race and the community in general."
   
 In September 1935, Odie L. Farris Sr. became the third principal of Washington Grade School, 
according to that same book and his grandson, Odie Farris III.
     
 The younger Farris said that after the Civil War, his grandfather's family moved from North Carolina 
to Missouri. The family got permission from the city to build a school for black children there, and the 
senior Odie Farris attended his father's school before going to Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.
Upon completion of college, Farris taught school in Sparta, Ill., then moved to Mt. Vernon."Education 
was always important for Farris children," Farris III said.
     
 In 1937, Casey Junior High was built, and the seventh and eighth-grade students from Washington School 
began attending school there. With J.L. Buford as superintendent of schools, the practice of segregation 
was stopped, according to the history of education book.
      
 Additionally, students at Washington School were allowed, for the first time, to take part in athletic 
competitions. The students who were interested in playing basketball. were so excited at the prospect that 
they found someone with seven uniforms to sell and they used their own money to purchase them. The book 
states that at that point, "Washington played and won the first grade school basketball tournament in the
history of the school." 
      
 The school continued to grow and in the late 1940s, major improvements were made to the building, 
with new floors, foundation work, fluorescent lights, exterior step improvement, the installation of 
new doors and some interior decorating, the history of education book states.
      
 The book was published in 1949, before additional improvements were made, but those planned included 
building three additional classrooms, a cafeteria, principal's office, a playroom and provisions for 
kindergarten. Additionally, the book states that there were four teachers and 114 students enrolled, in 
the first through sixth grades.
     
 Farris III said that he began attending the school in 1948. He said the school had a family 
atmosphere. "It was similar to home schooling " Farris said "Because nobody was a stranger."
He said that all the students lived in the same area. The same kids that attended school together, 
played on the playground together; they played after school and they played on the weekends.
      
There was a familiarity and closeness with the teachers, too. "No teacher was a stranger to any of us," 
he said. "She new you, your brother, your father, your grandfather." And if there was a problem with a 
child's behavior, the teacher and all the families the children had to pass by on the way home from 
school knew who to talk to.
    
 Being the grandson of the principal was especially tough, he teased, because his grandfather would 
correct him at school and then his parents would correct him again at home. Even the janitor was like 
family and was well-respected by all the children. "Mr. Grooms was a big man and he was a good man," 
Farris said.
     
 Washington school closed in 1961, when the students were integrated into the other public schools.
Farris spoke fondly of his years attending Washington School. He said there was just something magical 
that you don't find in schools today.
"There was some kind of love," he said.

Sentinel Photo/Dede Heider Haselton
School No More -- Today the building that was once Washington School looks similar to how it looked in 1962, when the school's doors closed for the final time. Odie Farris III, who attended the school from 1948-1954, said that the rooms inside are still identifiable as the gym, principal's office and six classrooms.


 
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