“The purpose of education is to expel the darkness and expose the light.”
– John Pierce Blanchard
It’s unanimous. The person often judged responsible for the highest rated education system in the CSRA is John Pierce Blanchard. Always known by all three names, this son of a country doctor was born in Columbia County in 1919, graduated from Leah High School and, after completing college and earning a masters degree in education administration, came home to teach, coach and, before long, serve as principal of Leah High School. By age 30, he was superintendent of all Columbia County schools.
“The strength of the school system in this county is largely due to the foundation Supt. Blanchard laid.”
Former educator Mary Sanders should know. Her 55-year career was well underway in 1949 when Blanchard became superintendent for the first of eight consecutive terms. (Note: Until recently, the school superintendent in Columbia County was an elected office.)
No modern buildings greeted the young educator or served the needs of his teachers and students when he arrived at his new post. At the time, only two consolidated schools, built 20 years earlier in Harlem and Evans, plus his own Junior/Senior High School in Leah existed. Otherwise, some 50 small schools in the predominately rural county housed hundreds of children with only one to four teachers per school. In 1955 the Evans building burned. What at first may have seemed like a tragedy, only hastened the modernization of all Columbia County schools.
Long before integration became law, Blanchard’s concern for black students was well known. Until then, only white students attended those few consolidated schools.
By the fall of 1956, however, not only were the displaced Evans students entering new classrooms, but every school-aged child in the county began the school year at one of eight new schools. Though still segregated by race, all buildings were constructed, staffed and equipped alike – four for black students, four for white.
“You know, he saw it coming.” Miss Sanders, by then principal at one of those new black schools, remembers the integration process and credits Blanchard for turning a potentially explosive situation into little more than a ripple.
For at least three years before integration became law, Blanchard took steps to ease the transition.
He discussed the subject in teachers’ conferences, integrated the summer program, and offered supplemental reading programs for all students at the four black schools. He integrated the faculty early, too, and the bus drivers. Miss Sanders and others remember his aggressive recruitment of black teachers, and his diplomacy in moving white teachers to different schools. After asking each teacher to list three schools where they would most like to teach, as far as possible, he fulfilled his promise to place each teacher in one of those desired three.
By the end of the 1960s, as neighboring communities were enduring boycotts and settling skirmishes in court, Columbia County children were already attending identical, integrated schools.
The “man of vision” who retired in 1980 and died in 1992 left a lasting legacy.
Capable successors have built on his foundation, and monuments to his memory exist throughout the county. Blanchard High School (now Columbia Middle School), the County’s first secondary school for black students, was named for him, as was the Evans football stadium on Cox Road. In July 2000, through the combined efforts of the Columbia County Historical Society and State Sen. Bill Jackson, family members and community alike gathered near the Appling Board of Education office to unveil a concrete memorial to the late but far from forgotten superintendent. Rep. Jackson summarized the reason for the tribute:
“John Pierce Blanchard could have been a U.S. Senator, even a Governor, but he chose not to go far from the trunk of the tree. Because of that, we are all his beneficiaries.”