Family Education in Bulloch County, Georgia
By Nathania A. Branch Miles
During my initial genealogical interviews with newfound cousins from Bulloch County, Georgia, talk of the community/family schools, namely the Riggs, Grimshaw , Handshaw , Love, Hall and Moore schools were remembered as great places of love, learning and family determination. After the emancipation and during reconstruction, many of my ancestors did not know how to read and write contracts for loans and sharecropping agreements. Even with the establishment of the Freedman’s Bureau some of my ancestors were still dependent upon white people to read legal documents for them. At that point, they could sign their names on legal document with an “X.”
The history and beginning of a planned community was documented in an unnamed authored biographical sketch of Willow Hill . The author give Grandpa Moses Parrish, the eldest of the Parrish brothers and family Patriarch, credit for setting into motion a plan to start the first planned family school, the Willie Hill School in 1874. As the community grew many former slaves began to spread out across the county, other families started new schools. Farm families were generally very large compared to today’s average of 2-4 children, sometimes more than 8-10 children were needed to work the farms at that time. According to the 1880 Federal Census there were three (3) colored School Teachers in Bulloch County and six (6) known schools that were housed in Turpentine shanties or church buildings. Conversations with elder cousins acknowledged that the family schools were scattered through the colored communities in Bulloch County. As many as 48 colored schools were highlighted in a 1909 Bulloch County Map . Often the eldest daughter and or son went away to a Baptist mission or Seminary Schools to get was what equivalent to an 7th or 8th grade education. When he/she returned home, a small school was formed and he/she became “the teacher.” The first known teacher for the Willie Hill School was cousin, Georgiana Riggs, daughter of Issac and Harriet (Grover) Riggs, who later married Lester “Digg” Parrish (my 3rd great uncle). Georgiana, a former slave, became the teacher at age 15, and taught basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills to the children at the Willie Hill School. It is unknown as to where Georgiana received her education.
The Willie Hill School would go through 3 transformations during its lifetime and was eventually absorbed into the Bulloch County Board of Education in the 1920s. The first building was very a crude one-room Turpentine shanty with one window, one door and an outside privy on the property of Audelia (Parrish) and Daniel Riggs. The school was situated on a hill amid briar and Pokeweeds. Cousin Willie Riggs was born in 1869 and was one of the first students to attend the school was later a School Teacher at the school. The Blue Back Speller, a dictionary and the bible were the first books used in the school.
The Willie Hill school grew rapidly and in 1890 moved to Handy and Agnes (Parrish) Donaldson’s farm for five (5) years where it grew to a two room building. Then, 1895 the school moved to its final location on land donated by Moses and Isabella (Donaldson) Parrish, in Portal, Georgia. The Willie Hill School would evolve three times during its lifetime and become the only community/family school to become a part of the Bulloch County Board of Education in the 1920s. In 1999, the school officially closed its doors.
The first teachers received their formal education in schools designed to give them basic skills in reading and writing. Teachers at the Colored (Negro) schools were educated in Missionary schools and training or normal institutes. The only requirements for colored teachers were to complete the 7th grade plus two additional years at the Statesboro Institute to receive a teaching certificate. Teacher preparation by today’s standards was extremely poor but learning was concentrated on domestic labor training. Sometimes the teachers had to board at the school for several months and often had to go further than Atlanta, which was quite a journey even traveling by train. If my ancestors wanted a college or higher education they had to travel to one of the newly created industrial training institutions such as Fisk and Hampton, which at that time were still called industrial or normal schools.
Conversations with my 3rd cousin, Lessie Hanshaw Parker (age 92), confirmed that my great grandmother (her father’s sister), Nellie A. Hanshaw attended Spelman Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia . The Spelman Seminary was a Commission created in 1879 by the Women’s American Baptist Home Mission Society to study the living conditions among the freedman of the south . The seminary doors opened in 1881 in the basement of the Atlanta’s Friendship Baptist Church. In 1881, Spelman Seminary was established at the Atlanta Baptist Female School for former slaves. According to the Archivist at Spelman College , was a Baptist seminary school founded by two white schoolteachers, Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles from Massachusetts to teach the newly freed slaves how to become self sufficient through learned skills such as reading and writing. The Atlanta Seminary provided the former slaves lessons in education, nursing, housekeeping and other domestic/industrial skills. The goal at that time was to train the colored people to be efficient agricultural and domestic workers in a rural society. Further educational pursuits such as going to college to become a doctor or and lawyer was discouraged. Industrial education for colored people in southern states was initiated to keep them on the farm or to recruit them as industrial workers to boot the southern economies. The whites of that era didn’t believe the Negro was capable of learning. The white leaders thought that teaching the colored children anything more than industrial skills a waste of tax payer money and time. As a result, very little money and support was given to the Colored Schools until Brown versus the Board of Education. The Colored schools were often supplied with discarded books, poor equipment, limited supplies and no certified teachers. The northern churches and Missionary schools developed several programs available to former slaves, namely industrial training, i.e., housekeeping, domestic service, nursing and education. The primary goal of instruction was to teach only reading, writing and to sums (arithmetic). Graduates of these programs received certificates and or diplomas.
My 2nd great grandmother, Nellie Hanshaw Parrish, attended the Spelman Seminary from1894-1897. Upon completion of her studies she taught school at the “Handshaw School” until she relocated to Freeport, NY in 1922. Regrettably because Nellie didn’t have a college degree she was unable to continue her teaching career in the New York City school system. The community/family schools were eventually merged into the county education system when the federal and state government education departments demanded that monies be given to the Negro schools. One of the prices the colored schools paid to be part of the county school system was the loss of the independent school.
I had many conversations with cousin Dr. Alvin D. Jackson, another family genealogist, who had the opportunity to interview and tape more 100 children of the original Willow Hill family and friends on the subject of Willow Hill community, education and living conditions. I was able to benefit from his research and confirm that the Willie Hill School name was changed to the Willow Hill School. The school was the only family school to survive into the 20th century. The school and its name became a part of the Bulloch County School system in 1950 after the property and building were sold by Moses Parrish to the Bulloch County Board of Education for the sum of $18.00 . Oral history confirms the physical location of the school was moved at least twice from the farm of Daniel Riggs to the farm of Moses Parrish to its current location in Portal, GA. The school was said to be named for the son of Audelia (Parrish) and Daniel Riggs, Willie and because the school was surrounded by briar and Pokeweeds. Willie Riggs, who attended the Willow Hills School as a child, furthered his formal education graduating from Atlanta Bible College (1898-1900). After graduation Willie Riggs taught grade school at Willow Hill for many years. Many of the descendants of Andrew and Clory Donaldson and Cain and Isabelle Parrish were involved in education becoming educators, administrators or associated with the board of education. They worked extremely hard to ensure that their children had a basic education, a place to study and qualified teachers to teach. They sent many of their sons and daughters to schools in the north and the Carolinas to get an education. The Willow Hill community was fortunate that many of their offspring returned home to Bulloch County after completing their studies, while others stay in the north where the opportunities and salaries were better.
Internet searches through the Bulloch County Web page connected me to the Statesboro Regional library where I purchased several genealogical sources, which mentioned blacks and Education during and after Reconstruction. Many of the family school administrators and educators were educated in northern colleges were recruited by the families to come and manage the Willow Hill school. The Bulloch County Board of Education and the colored community recruited Dr. William James to head the industrial training school. Dr. James, a graduate of the Atlanta Baptist Missionary School, now know as Morehouse College, was a renown educator and fundraiser who devoted his life to raising money to support the Negro schools for better supplies, equipment and teacher salaries. Dr. James was responsible for the development of the Statesboro Industrial and Normal High School, which was late renamed the James Williams High School in Statesboro.
According to the Duggan Education Survey of 1915 there were 36 known colored/Negro schools operating in Bulloch County. Mr. Duggan described the conditions of the colored schools as deplorable, poorly educated teachers; not enough books, supplies and equipment were almost non-existent. Most of the teachers held certificates from the Spelman Seminary and other Baptist or Methodist missionary schools. By 1938 a few of the community/family schools, namely, the Love, Smith, Brannen, Robert Brannen, Handshaw, Bethel and Little Bethel schools that were listed in Duggan’s Educational survey were no longer listed as community schools. It is assumed that some of the family schools were consolidated within larger schools where the meager resources could be more effective. The Bulloch County Superintendents Annual Report in 1938 listed 38 colored schools and by 1949 this number had decreased to 33 schools. According to Mrs. Mosley report, the African American Churches appeared to be more active in the role of educating their children thus confirming that the schools were closely related to the local churches.
In 1829, Georgia passed legislation making it a crime to teach slaves to read. The first post war schools were often clandestine operating openly by January 1865. However, with the creation of the Willie Hill School in 1874, my ancestors decided to build a community and seek freedom from white control. The mention of the “family schools” piqued my interest as I was in awe of the determination of these ancestors who recognize that education was the key to the future opportunities. In spite of all the barriers put in front of them, they made sure that their children would have the education they were deprived of solely because of their color. They raised monies to match donations (Rosenwald and Jeanes Fund), to pay teachers and build a new school buildings. In 1950, a wing of the Willow Hill school is dedicated to Mr. Rosenwald. The Willow Hill parents formed a board of directors and managed the recruitment of teachers, fundraising and building of their schools.
The Jeanes Supervisor Program was very helpful in continuing the education of the teachers of these schools. The Jeans Supervisors provided practical instruction in agricultural and household arts, in cleanliness and sanitation, with the rudiments of a common school education. Many of the teachers who taught at the family schools benefited from the training delivered by these women.
According the First Annual Report of the State School Commissioner of the great state of Georgia adopted the Public School System in 1870 and in 1871 , Bulloch County. It was a very long time before the Negroes of Bulloch County would be able to benefit from this law as the family schools were the primary and sole source of education. Some of the colored schools were housed in old turpentine buildings on family farms or in local churches during the week. The number of students per school varied, however averaged between 15-25 students per one teacher. As most families were farmers and the children were needed to assist with the farming, the school semester was often 4-6 months depending on the schedule and monies. Teachers were paltry often being paid small sums based on the amount of money the community could raise. Compared to their white counter-parts their salaries were very meager sometimes not enough to live on.
In 1920, Grandpa Moses Parrish sold the school and the property to the Bulloch County Board of Education for $18.00. I learned that with the help of several church missionary programs that many of my female ancestors attended these institutions of learning and gave back to the community. As a recipient of the Julius Rosenwald Foundation grant in 1930’ a new school building with indoor plumbing, several classrooms, and offices was built. I learned that many of the children who graduated from the Willow Hill School went on to become community leaders and worked to improve the quality of Negro education, equipment and the schools facilities at its final site.
I learned that in spite of the trials and tribulations of slavery that my ancestors knew the value of education and made every effort to get the next generation on the right path to independence. They had attended the industrial training schools and some of them went further to become other professionals.
I was intrigued by the number of ancestors who went into the field of education versus medicine, law, and nursing. Efforts on the part of the majority were to focus our energy and education in industrial service trades rather jobs and positions of independence and self-reliance. With the assistance of the Rosenwald Foundation, the many Baptist, Methodist and missionary schools, the quality of life of the former slave and their family improved tenfold with each child who could read and write their name, understand the labor contracts and would continue the tradition of educating their children with the same principles and goals.
Before the Civil War, Georgia had no system of public education. Its school tax assisted poor white children with tuition at private schools. Northern aid to freemen’s education declined as Georgia began to develop a dual system of education. The aide societies stopped giving at the same time. White Georgians sought to limit public funding for black education. Local districts refused to support public secondary education. I admire the tenacity of the families had to create their own schools in spite of all the obstacles set forth during and after reconstruction.
Future research will be to learn where Georgiana Riggs received her basic education. According to the 1870 Census she was listed as a Nurse, so I can only assume that someone in the slave owners’ farm taught her how to read so that she could perform her duties.