In 1950, a fiery protest in Rockdale County laid the foundation for the Bryant Street/J.P. Carr School building, the first government-funded black school in Rockdale County. Nineteen years of extraordinary accomplishments and continuous struggles by a community of dedicated teachers, students and parents, often complicated by segregation and financial concerns, followed at the school. The last senior class to graduate from J.P. Carr was in 1969. Carr was then downgraded to a junior high school under the merger of black and white schools.
Last Saturday, a reunion event celebrated the successes and honored the harvests of those 19 years of Bryant Street/J.P. Carr High School, with alumni from near and far in attendance. The reunion was held on Nov. 10 at Under the Stars Reception Hall in Oxford and 278 former students, graduates and staff attended.
Hundreds of girls and boys were educated at J.P. Carr, named after brick mason John Philip Carr who donated the land for the school. The school's colors were maroon and gray and the school's basketball team, the Eagles, soared on courts in Athens, Covington, Lithonia and Eatonton. J. P. Carr's marching band also regularly brought home trophies from district and state competitions.
Until the early 1950s and as far back as the 1870s, school for most black children meant attending class in churches. Christine Clark, class of '56, attended church schools and Bryant Street/J.P. Carr. Clark's parents were born in Rockdale County and worked here as sharecroppers.
"You went to school where you were a member or to a church school in the area near you," said Clark. "I went to school at Rock Temple, Peek's Chapel and Macedonia. I remember walking from Salem Road all the way to Peek's Chapel. My teacher would have the potbellied stove glowing red to warm the room when we arrived, and a pot of beans on top of the stove cooking for lunch. The teacher, one teacher, served lunch, taught lessons and administered discipline and care for seven grades."
While the school system in Rockdale County had long eliminated one-room schools for whites, as late as 1947, the county had nine rural, one-room elementary church schools for black children. The school for older children was Bryant Street High School, renamed J.P. Carr in 1958. Because fewer resources were made available to the Bryant Street School than the county's white high school, its overcrowded facilities were in shabby condition, lit by lamps brought by students and teachers and heated by coal-burning, pot-bellied stoves. Textbooks and furniture were discards from the white schools.
Each year through the 1940s, black educators and parents appealed to the board of education for a better school building, and the board promised to look into the matter. Just after World War II, some old barracks were moved to the Bryant Street site and converted into four classrooms. Parents used leftover materials to construct a home economics cottage in 1947.
A delegation made a strong plea for a new facility in 1948. The old one is past repair, explained the delegation. When the needs of the black children were not met after several appeals and requests, a small group of men, sworn to secrecy, torched the school buildings in the wee hours of Friday, Mar. 10, 1950. Local news headlines read, "Spectacular Early-Morning Fire Swept County's Colored School."
Representatives from black churches, lodges and civic associations offered the use of their properties for school purposes. The school board thanked the delegation and accepted the offer. The county then set a precedent in Georgia by passing a $50,000 bond issue to rebuild the school. The resulting Bryant Street School featured modern classrooms, a library, restrooms, a cafeteria (that could be converted into two additional classrooms when not used for serving meals), an auditorium and central heating.
Expansion of J.P. Carr's facilities continued, as did its enrollment. An additional wing opened in time for the 1957-58 school year. The wing included a science lecture room and lab, a home economics room and a carpentry shop. In 1961, a long-needed, first-class gymnasium was built. The 1961-62 school year began with an enrollment of 798 students
Walter Martin, class of '60, attended Carr High School. His parents were George and Minerva Martin of Conyers. Martin's best friend growing up in Conyers was Willie Carter Sidwell. The two men have stayed in touch over the years, Martin from Northern states, Sidwell from Georgia.
Like most boys, the friends were always looking for some kind of mischief. But, Martin's father was janitor at J.P. Carr and kept a close eye on them.
"I didn't get away with much," said Martin. "The teachers at Carr were excellent and devoted - like Duckfield, Gardner, Woodall, Greer. Greer hooked me up in a quartet. We won prizes at the Future Farmer's event in Jackson. We sang at the white high schools - could sing there, but not attend."
Martin, who is retired and has three children and six grandchildren, is very modest concerning his music competition quartet. They were quite an item in this area.
Another alumni Bessie Ammons Scott, class of '62, was her class salutatorian. She had her eye on a particular college when principal George Edwards, who knew her and knew her parents, convinced them to send her to his alma mater, Morris Brown. Scott graduated from Morris Brown cum laude with a degree in accounting. She recently took an early retirement, and enjoys volunteering for community projects and substitute teaching for DeKalb and Rockdale schools.
Remembering J.P. Carr, Scott said, "It's best features were good teachers and the new gym. I was the baby in the family. My older siblings played basketball on an outdoor court when it was Bryant Street School.
"From hand-me-down text books came basic learning to produce doctors, lawyers, educators and other professionals. Today, I work side-by-side with graduates of the white schools, equally compensated. My daughter graduated from RCHS. I have three grandchildren at Heritage and one at Shoal Creek; and, my oldest grandson is scheduled to begin classes at Valdosta State University."
The former students of J.P. Carr used the reunion to honor their teachers. The group members, who lit the fire for education for black children in this community in 1950, are gone in anonymity. Only great teachers and great reunions remain.
Linda Reynolds is a columnist for the Citizen. She is interested in stories about historical landmarks in Rockdale and Newton counties. If you know of a special story, place or event, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 770-483-7108, ext. 252.