WAXAHACHIE — African American children in the United States were not always guaranteed the right to a formal education. For decades, racism, segregation, and unequal opportunities were the barriers, which stood between black students and the educational standards of their white neighbors.
Courageous and remarkable leaders — such as Martin Luther King Jr. — along with Supreme Court rulings like Brown v. The Board of Education helped pave the way for to rid the country of the small-minded thinking. Without the bravery of those few, 31-year educators like Evelyn Coleman of Waxahachie ISD would’ve never had the opportunity to enrich the lives of students of all races.
During her career in education, Coleman taught at Marvin Elementary, Northside Elementary and Waxahachie Junior High — where she would become the assistant principal in 1988. She served as principal at Turner Middle School until 1998 and became the Director of Curriculum for WISD until her retirement in 2001.
“This MLK holiday provides us the opportunity not only to reflect on the past but also to have hope for the future. I have had the distinct privilege of being engaged in WISD as a student, a teacher, an administrator, a volunteer and as a board member. We have made so many strides over the last several decades and have even more to make,” Coleman said. “As an educator, I believe all students should be afforded the opportunity of equality in their educational experiences. Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement were relentless in their efforts to make this a reality. However, while legislature can enact laws, it cannot enact change in hearts, minds, and consciousness. It's up to us to do so.”
A history of segregation and integration
After the Freedmen’s Bureau was instituted in 1865 to supervise education in 16 states and the District of Columbia, some found themselves opposed to the education for African Americans and reacted by burning schools and intimidating missionary teachers. Though this was a trend throughout, the attitude was not universal in Texas.
According to The State Historical Foundation, “Texas teachers' convention of 1866, for example, passed a resolution urging training for the newly freed African Americans of Texas." [....] The Constitution of 1866 provided that the "income derived from the Public School Fund be employed exclusively for the education of white scholastic inhabitants," and that the "legislature may provide for the levying of a tax for educational purposes."
African Americans were taxed for "the maintenance of a system of public schools for Africans and their children. The Reconstruction legislature of 1870, by eliminating segregation, gave Texas a single educational system in which all children shared, but in 1873 and 1875 the state legislature repealed most of the laws of the Reconstruction period.”
The Constitution of 1876 reestablished segregation of races and it wasn’t until the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that the senseless law was done away with for good. Texas led desegregation throughout the South, having two black students admitted to a previously all-white school district before the court's ruling.
Education in Waxahachie
Waxahachie ISD was founded in 1864 and shortly followed by the establishment of the first African American elementary school. A few short years later, Oak Lawn eventually evolved into the town's first high school in 1886. Seven years later, principal J.W. Tilden added high school courses to the curriculum and graduated the first class comprised of four students in 1896.
According to the History of Oaklawn, “On April 2, 1918, trustees formed a committee to go before the Waxahachie City Council to call a bond election for the erection of a 'substantial' public school building. In May of 1918, the Domestic Science Department of the colored school held a dinner for the school trustees and at the meetings the trustees looked over the property next to and adjacent to the existing school. As a result of this meeting, a committee of trustees drafted a resolution to the city council for a bond issue for the colored school. It was presented to the council on May 20, 1918, and on June 3 the city council ordered the bond election to be held on July 2.”
The bond passed with 299 votes for the new school and 11 in opposition. Construction of the new school was completed by Sept. 1919, and the school resumed under the administration of Prince Goldthwaite.
“[...] A new wing and restroom were added to the original building in 1941. The addition of the new wing was needed to meet the increasing number of black students. More rooms meant more teachers and new courses, which led to Oak Lawn becoming accredited by the state for the first time," the History of Oaklawn reads. "The growth of the school continued until a need came for the separation of the high school from the elementary school. A new high school was built in 1952 and only grades one through seven remained at Oak Lawn by 1968.”
The “new” school was Turner High School, located at 614 Getzendaner Street, which served as Turner Middle School for many years. Students in grades eight through twelve were welcomed, and the first graduating class was in 1953.
According to the history provided by the Oak Lawn & Turner High School history group, “ It’s first principal was Mr. M.Z. Hicks. He served in that role until his retirement in 1965. Mr. E.D. Finley, Sr., the renowned Mathematics teacher, became principal and served in that role from 1965-68. The last graduating class was the Class of 1968.”
In 1970, WISD became fully integrated, shutting down the Oak Lawn school and turning Turner High School into a sixth-grade-only campus until 2008. The facility now serves as the WISD Challenge Academy, Learning Center, Special Education Center and Curriculum Department.
Kelsey Poynor, @KPoynor_WDL