Urgent history lesson

Three quarters of a century after they opened, several former Richmond County schoolhouses sit worn down and vacant, with historical preservationists hoping to save them from demolition.

 

The old John S. Davidson School, the A.C. Griggs School, the Martha Lester School and the old Sue Reynolds School, all built in 1934, must be sold to plug a $1.5 million hole in this year's school budget.

"We just don't want anyone to come into town and think this is a prime piece of property and tear it down," said Erick Montgomery, of Historic Augusta, which is offering its expertise in preservation to any interested buyers.

The schools could be put up for bid this month, said Jack Padgett, the chairman of the school board's building committee. Also up for sale are the old Hornsby Elementary, the Floyd Graham School and the Regency Exchange 8 cinema.

While the school board is hoping to sell these sites, it is also looking for ways to best use its existing properties and to bring more racial equality to school facilities. That is the same situation the board was facing nearly 80 years ago.

The passage of a million-dollar school construction package heralded a day when money flowed easily for Richmond County education.

"The cost of these and other projects that the Board wanted would have unnerved citizens of another era," Augusta historian Ed Cashin wrote in The Quest: A History of Public Education in Richmond County, Georgia. "However this was the high-flying twenties when the fantastic was entirely possible. So, the once-timid Board decided to go for broke."

The bond package was passed after a grand jury report highlighted the need to replace and repair shabby school buildings and improve conditions for all children.

A grand jury was highly critical of the segregated school system for allowing its facilities to fall into disrepair, especially schools for black children. The report also recommended consolidating old one-room schoolhouses and replacing others.

Though the bond issue passed in 1929, construction of the schools didn't happen until a few years later during the Great Depression.

When the bond package was complete, Richmond County had the following new schools: Joseph Lamar; the Fourth Ward School (later Lawton B. Evans); James R. Fleming; the original Gracewood School; Perrin School; Emma Stoughton School (later A.C. Griggs); Rocks School (later the old Sue Reynolds); the old John S. Davidson; Martha Lester; Silas X. Floyd; and C.T. Walker.

"The litany of schools was so impressive that one might forget what launched the drive for the bond issue in the first place, the need for new schools for black children," Dr. Cashin wrote.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.