“Even with poor facilities, sporadic attendance and, by today’s standards, ill-equipped teachers, you felt you were doing something good. We taught kids to read, spell, write and do math in only 4-5 months a year. If you got a good high school education and had common sense, you were able to do that.”
– Sarah Washington, former local black educator
To see an example of early black education in Columbia County, we need only drive to Appling and visit the small, weathered building across from the courthouse, not far from the latter 20th-century office of the Board of Education. Walnut Grove School, which the Columbia County Historical Society moved, refurbished, and maintains for public display, was one of about 30 one-room elementary schools for black children prior to the opening of the county’s “separate but equal” consolidated schools in 1956.
These schools were usually on or near the property of a church with the same name and, before state-standardized education and county-levied school taxes, built and maintained by that church. According to a 1932 superintendent’s report, Walnut Grove School, formerly located beside Walnut Grove Baptist Church on Ray Owens Road, was valued at $1,000, and served the needs of one teacher earning $100 a year to teach 40 students in five different grades.
Sarah Washington,who began teaching after graduating from high school in 1934, describes her early experience in a similar, one-room school:
“They weren’t the nice, sealed-up buildings with nice walls and floors like we have today. Maybe there were a few windows and a door, but there were cracks everywhere. You could look out and see everything from the sun to the stars through the walls and roof.”
On cold days a stove in the middle of the room compensated for the cracked walls – as long as a parent or trustee remembered to bring in a wagon load of wood. When that did not happen, Sarah recalls, “I had to stop class early in the afternoon and take the students out into the woods to break off limbs so we could keep warm the next day.”
Teachers had to be equally inventive when it came to the school’s nonexistent plumbing.
“The trustees bought us a shiny new bucket and dipper at the beginning of each year, and the students took turns going out to the well or spring every morning to bring in fresh water. And when we needed to go to the restroom, everyone just went outside in a different direction.”
Not only were the buildings in primitive condition, but they were virtually empty of furnishings and supplies.
Walnut Grove or its counterpart was the only school experience most black children at that time would ever have. Poverty and lack of transportation often prevented traveling to Augusta to further their education. Sarah was a fortunate exception. Her family had friends in Augusta where she could board while attending Haines Normal School, a private secondary school founded by early black educator, Lucy Laney – now called Laney High School. In addition, she had the example of her mother, Belle Avery, who also attended Haines, and was the only elementary schoolteacher Sarah ever had.
Sarah completed college one course or a summer at a time, making her eligible, following the court-mandated integration of all Georgia public schools, to become Columbia County’s first black principal. By the time she retired in 1979, Washington had been the principal of three elementary schools in Evans and Martinez, and served Columbia County as a teacher or administrator for 45 years.