Memories of James School

by | Feb 1, 2019 | Features

We try. We really do, those of us raised in a white bubble. But it’s inevitable that we fall short of comprehending the full script of the African American experience, even in our own communities. When we look back across the years, we often see the bad parts. This keeps some folks from looking back.
Less than rosy recollections record the role our community played in oppressing our Black neighbors. There are some treasured memories of carefree childhood days in the Black Russellville narrative, but those were afforded by the diligence of parents and teachers. The context of the times that were forcing these communities inward was still an ugly thing. But for the resilience of the teachers, parents, and members of the tiny African American neighborhoods and settlements in and around Russellville, those communities would surely not be intact today. And the community at large would be sadly lacking.
Reflected from the young upturned black faces of James School who proudly sang “Good Morning, Mr. Zip, Zip, Zip”* at the start of every morning was the naiveté of the calm within the storm. Some of those faces, though, weathered by the decades, are still part of Russellville today. And they remember. Mrs. Cecilia Foster James (61), whose life has been centered around music, recalls this James School ritual with tenderness. “All of the classes sang, and it was a really upbeat song and set the tone for the day. Mrs. Anna Jean Stokes was our piano player,” she says.
The James School, built in 1927, filled the need for an African American primary school in Russellville. The little rock building with three rooms and two bathrooms was the cultural bedrock for the neighborhood, its pulse alerting the good folks to be ever-vigilant for the sake of the children. Every program and event was attended by the entire neighborhood. Named for the principal of the original Russellville Colored School, Professor Delaware B. James, the school expanded his legacy of educating the masses. Born into slavery on a Mississippi plantation, Professor James believed an education was the only way to raise a people, and so he stoked the dream of a quality education for African American children.
For Mrs. James (no relation to D.B.) the music and drama are what she remembers most. For more than 80 years her family has been charged with providing music at New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church, which is across the street from the James School site now a community park. She has followed and surpassed her aunt’s 40 years of service. Mrs. James’ music appreciation grew at James School, and she soon began piano lessons under the direction of Dr. Carol Smith. Mr. Raymond N. Jackson (76) concurred. “We had a little stage and everything, and we really did sing every day,” he says.
“The closing of the school was the saddest thing for me, but we had an official closing play before the doors closed,” Mrs. James adds. “I played the sunshine. There was a king, queen, and princess, too. Harry James played the king.” Years later, the two childhood friends and fellow actors wed. “I was the sunshine who married the king,” Mrs. James says with a joyful laugh. Mr. Stephen Pearson (72) met with similar good fortune. “The James School was a good place for all of us. I met my wife there, and we’ve been married 44 years,” he says.
Rev. Jerry Linton (64) remembers that every Friday was activities day. “We played sports, and we learned to count by playing dominos,” says Rev. Linton. He remembers some of the hardships as well. “There were four grades in one classroom. There were two classrooms, and 30 to 35 students in each grade. There were also no lights in the Black schools until we went and protested because, hey, we paid taxes, too.” Mr. Pearson reminds him that the school didn’t even have air conditioning or a library. “And when it rained,” Mr. Jackson says, “the ditch would flood.” Rev. Linton held his hand up to his former classmates. “Don’t forget, we’d get paddled in school, too.” This statement raises the roof with guffaws and good-natured slaps on the back.“Mr. Anderson was the principal and a very large man,” Rev. Linton explains, “and when he took off his big belt — whoo-ee!” More laughter ensues.
Mr. Raymond N. Jackson’s great-grandmother founded the school and his grandfather was the principal. Like Mrs. James with her family’s musical legacy, the former students who were interviewed all shared in the deep sinew of the community. Mrs. Margaret Bagby (77) recalls small comforts, “One of the things I loved about the James School is that it was close enough for me to walk, and we went home to eat lunch every day.” Mr. Melvin Smith (70) laughed and says, “We did live right close, didn’t we?” Mrs. Bagby replied, “It was fun, really. You know, we were just kids, but we felt so independent and loved.”
Much of the life successes of these James School students was due to the dedication of the network of African American communities around Russellville. To provide quality education at James School, teachers from all around would temporarily move to town. Mrs. Mary Webb was one of the local teachers who opened the doors of her home to these itinerate teachers. “She always had people living at her house,” Mrs. James says.
James School had classes only up to an eighth grade level. But not all students were able to benefit from the eight years of schooling at James. “They closed the schools when I was in fourth grade. That must have been 1964 or ’65. Three of us were integrated into Oakland Heights that year,” she says, “and Gardner Junior High was so much different than it is today, and then we went to a new high school. It was more of a family atmosphere of close friends. We knew we were different, but we were so close. Our class is still like family. We didn’t have problems like when my children went to school in the ‘80s.”
After graduating, some students moved in with family in other states to continue their education. Some continued their education in Ft. Smith and others in Little Rock. Most students were bused to Morrilton. Mrs. James remembers that the bus picked up at 7 a.m at James School and had already picked up students in Havana, Danville, and Dardanelle.
The L. W. Sullivan High School (1934 – 1965), also known as the Morrilton Colored School, recognized by its craftsman style and fieldstone facade, was located in a neighborhood at the edge of downtown. The school was built by the community and partially funded by the W.P.A. Named after its first principal, L.W. Sullivan, the school was at first opened to all grades but soon had to build a separate elementary school due to the busing of Black students from Conway, Pope, Perry and Yell counties, including Havana, Danville, Plainview, Dardanelle, Russellville, Atkins, and Bigelow. The school was registered with the National Register of Historic Places a year before it burned in 2015.
The school was distinguished in that it was accredited Mrs. Bagby says, “and one thing I can say about the Sullivan teachers was that they were very dedicated. They took time and made sure you learned.” Mr. Smith agreed. “We had good teaching at James,” Mr. Smith says. “Mr. Keith’s square roots in eighth grade served us well. When we got to Morrilton, it was more basic math they were teaching. Those teachers knew Russellville was well taught. We would ace those tests, and we’d be proud of Russellville.”
Nationwide schooling inequities existed even in places where there was no segregation. In his senior year, Mr. Jackson transferred to Fresno, CA. Things there were not what he expected. “It was hard to keep the kids in school there — not like here where all the focus was on education,” he says. Mr. Jackson leans in closer and says in a conspiratorial tone, “I couldn’t wait till I was out of school. I didn’t like to get up, and as I got older it wasn’t so much fun — the bus and all — I got tired of it.”
“The truth of the matter,” Mr. Jackson continues, “is that we just didn’t have the leadership to say we wanted to start Russellville High School. “I’d be at the shoeshine bar at the barbershop and hear all kinds of things. It wasn’t until two school buses crashed in ’64 when parents said they wouldn’t send us to Morrilton no more.”
The hardships of attending school so far away from home are unknown to students today. “Those Morrilton football players had to ride the truck home from practice and hitch-hike home after the football games,” says Rev. Linton. “Henry Trucking of Russellville would shuttle us back and forth.” Mr. Smith added. “Or we’d hop on the train cause we played basketball too late.” Rev. Linton replied, “Like they said, they walked if they missed the bus. By that time it was very dark.” And when the athletes would get to Atkins, Mr. Smith says, “my momma would pick us up. Ray Blacks started out driving when Russellville got our own bus, and he would go back evenings for school events.”
“Snow, rain, anything.” Mr. Jackson says. The school mascot was a tiger, and it seems the students each had a bit of that fight inside them. Mrs. Bagby adds, thoughtfully, “What tickles me is that children don’t want to be bused to the other side of town now.”
Because Sullivan High School served such a large area, an intricate web of buses was crucial to get the students to school on time. Bus drivers that served the school included Frank Ross in Russellville, Forest Bryles in Blackwell, Levi Cunningham in the Happy Bend/Kenwood area, “Doc” Ingram, Lee Stricklen from Morrilton, and Clay Brown from Bigelow. But private transportation services were also necessary to pick up the slack, particularly due to extracurricular activities. The bus drivers parked the buses at their homes for efficiency.
The students formed a bond that made life a little easier. Mr. Smith saysthat word got around on the bus. “If you hurt one person from Russellville, you gotta fight all of them, ” she says. Rev. Linton replied, “We don’t stand up like that today.” After a slight pause, Mr. Jackson says gravely, “If you never say anything, people think you’re satisfied.”
Keeping one’s head down was a way of life for African Americans.
“You got to look at it this way,” Mr. Pearson says. “Our parents worked for somebody and they couldn’t fight about it.” Mr. Jackson chimed in, “I’m sitting right there at the shoeshine stand, and I heard all those people talk about it.” The group voices a collective, “Uh-huh.” Mr. Pearson says, a bit louder. Quietly, Mrs. Bagby nods and says, “I agree with you; we didn’t have leadership to rise up so we didn’t have to travel 26 miles to school.” Mr. Jackson replied, “Fifty miles for Danville students.”
Professor James’ obituary appeared on the front page of the Courier-Democrat on June 2, 1921 under the title “Good Colored Citizen Dead.” The notice reads, “Prof. James was a genuine benefactor to his race and the community in which he lived. He was educated, broad-minded, and while he was zealous for the advancement of his own race, yet he never went astray over the illusion that his people should expect or aspire to race equality, and had been heard to express publicly on many occasions that the white man was the Negro’s best friend and that each should stay in his own way and cooperate for the advancement of both.”
These former students don’t speak openly about the worst of the indignities. Their dependence on each other was and remains strong. “Our class was like a family and is still that way,” Mrs. James says. “We faced problems together. My children went to school in the ‘80s, and they had a lot more troubles.”
Mrs. James nods her head. “Oh, we had fear back then. But there was good folks, too. Principal Robert T. Anderson, Mrs. Sybil Bond, Mrs. Fleming, Mrs. Marie Davis, and Mrs. Frances Watson Stewart. There were so many good people who took care of us.” Mr. Jackson nodded his head and says, “Remember Mr. Rick Garagous? He was a door shaker and he lived on Second Street. He would shake all the doors and make sure they were all locked at night. He had a badge and a little stick, and he would let us all play together in his yard. Black, white — it didn’t matter. It was rough and tumble, but there was no problem.”
“I wish I could tell Coach Keaster’s father-in-law, Mr. Hoover, how important he was to me and to all of us,” Mrs. Bagby says. “I would tell him, ‘I will never, ever forget how you made us feel welcome, and you made it so much easier because of the way you cared about us.’ He made all the difference in our lives.”
Even in the hardest of times, look for the good people — the helpers. There are always helpers.

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