February 20, 2006
By Dede Heider Haselton
Sentinel News Staff
Washington among early city schools
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
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
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,"
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.
OLD MT.V SCHOOL
A WHITE ELEPHANT
Mt. Vernon Register News March 12, 1974
By STEVE KORRIS,
Register-News Staff Writer
Symbol of Racial Separatism For Years
The Booker T, Washington School, the symbol of racial , separatism in Mt. Vernon for many years and a
White elephant for the past 12 years will be sold tomorrow, and will apparently serve as a recreational
center. The bullding lay dormant from 1962 to 1965, was used by fhe Mt, Vernon YMCA from 1965 to 1970,
then went back into mothballs. The passage of time makes it difficult to imagine that only a dozen years
ago, this community supported an all black school. Just as difficult to imagine is that Mt. Vernon was
attacked twice by the NAACP, once in 1957 and again in in 1962, for maintaining what the NAACP felt s was
a segregated system. By the late 50's, however, a the Disrict 80 grade school board had told parents of
black children fhat they could choose whether to send them to Washington School or to the school located
in their neighborhood. And by l962, when the NAACP made, It's second criticism of Mt. Vernon, the closing
of Washington School had already been announced. On Jan. 10th of that year, the District 80 board announced
that the school would be closed at the end of the school year. The board acted on a recommendation by a
committee which had been appointed in 1961 by Board President Fletcher Farrar. The decision to let parents
choose between Washington and the other city schools might have forestalled criticism of the school system,
but it also had a drastic effect on enrollment at Washington School. In 1955, enrollment at Washington School
peaked at 73 students, all black, But each succeeding year saw more black youngsters switching to Edison, Mann,
Hall, and Lincoln schools. The last year fhat Washington School was open, 1961-62, fhere were just 74 in students
After the closing of the school, board members and the general public began kicking around ideas for a way to
use the building. In 1963, City manager Chester Lewis suggested it be used for recreational purposes, perhaps
as a YMCA facility. However, when the building was put up for sale on June 5, 1963, no one stepped forward to
purchase it. The school board maintained ownership and in 1965, leased the building to the Mt. Vernon YMCA,
bringing Lewis's idea into reality. In 1970, the school board decided to sell the school building. An auction
was held Aug. 2, 1970, and the minimum bid was set at $90,000. Nobody wanted it at that price, and the auction
failed. Tomorrow, the minimum bid will be announced at $30,000. The Mt. Vernon YMCA, four years after it left
the building, wants to reinter it now, but as owner this time. The "Y" has submitted an irrevocable offer to bid
$30,000. That figure appears a bit ironic in the light of the cost of past construction at the Washington School.
In the late 40's and early 50's, when Mt. Vernon poured some $2,000,000 into renovating its entire school system,
some $150,000 worth of repairs and additions were made at the school.
Submitted By: Cindy Ford