Dr. Marty Olliff discusses a Columbia family's struggle to complete a high school education in the early 20th century.
This 1941 photograph shows the first two graduates of the new 12th grade curriculum offered at Columbia High School in Columbia, Alabama, Mabel Weems (16) and Euffie Weems (18). The story of both their family and their journey to complete 12th grade is worth knowing.
The African American side of the Weems Family of Columbia, a Chattahoochee River port in northeast Houston County, emerged from emancipation in a slightly better position than most. Members of the family eventually purchased 200 contiguous acres of farmland rather than having to farm on shares or as tenants. This meant their standard of living was higher than many of their neighbors, white and black. In the 1920s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated the average size of an Alabama farm at approximately 39 acres, far too small to provide sufficient income for a reasonable life or allow farmers to diversify from cotton into food crops and livestock. Even though the Weems’ acreage supported four or five families, by managing it together they could benefit from the advantages of a 200-acre farm.
In addition, land ownership meant the Weems families were stable community members. Most share croppers, even those tied to debt peonage through the crop lien, moved every year or so. But owners stayed put and improved both the land and farm buildings. They were more highly invested in the life of the community such as churches and schools, and tended to support improvements.
Education was an improvement most community members favored, at least for their own children. According to Columbia historian David Hunter, the town offered white education since the 1830s, and black education during Reconstruction. Private citizens or the town itself owned and maintained their own schools even after Houston County formed in 1903 and took over the white schools. Nevertheless, education for both races ended with the 9th grade. In the 1920s, the county began providing an accredited high school curriculum to white students, but it took until the 1939 school year before it made upper grades available to black students.
Underdeveloped curriculum was one thing; wholly inadequate buildings were another. The Alabama Department of Education reported that as of the 1938 school year, Houston County had 32 school buildings for 1,825 African American students, with all but four buildings owned by trustees or private groups rather than the county. Sixteen of these were one-room churches, and none of the 32 had more than two rooms. Ten had no heat, twenty had a stove, and two had steam heat. Even more disturbing were the sanitary facilities and water. Half of these schools had so-called surface toilets (latrines that used buckets – or not – and were often open to animals and flies), eight had pit latrines, and six reported no facilities at all. Only one school had water available on the grounds. Of two dozen others with water nearby, seven reported using a well bucket, four used a spring, and eight had a pump.
The state school board recommended abandoning 27 of these 32 buildings, and happily noted that the county had secured Public Works Administration (PWA) funds to build four new schools, including a three-room, metal-roofed high school for Columbia’s African American 7th-12th graders. Two years after this school opened, the Weems sisters graduated.
Eighteen years later, the state Department of Education conducted another survey that recommended abandoning the Columbia High School, busing the 100 junior high and 48 senior high students to Ashford, and erecting a modern elementary school of at least six classrooms on the site.
In 2003, the Wiregrass Archives received the two photographs of the Weems family from Ms. Dorothy Brown, Mabel Weems’s daughter, as part of the celebration of Houston County’s centennial. They appear in Houston County: The First Hundred Years (Arcadia Press, 2003) and at the Wiregrass Archives website, Dorothy L. Brown Photographs, https://resources.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives/inventories/023.html.
The Alabama Department of Education School System Surveys for all Wiregrass counties (provided by the Alabama Department of Archives and History) are at https://resources.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives/inventories/129.html.
Special thanks go to David Hunter of Columbia for generously providing information about the history of Columbia. See more at the website of the Columbia Historical Society, http://www.columbiahistoricalsocietyofalabama.org/.
It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.