In the early twentieth century counties across the South closed rural schoolhouses and replaced them with larger consolidated schools. School consolidation centralized educational control by eliminating schools where one teacher supervised all pupils and concentrating authority in the hands of a principal, who supervised multiple teachers and reported to a county school board. The movement swept Mississippi in 1910, and public reaction betrayed the divided mind of the state regarding modernity and traditionalism. While professionals and administrators in towns and cities hailed consolidation as a weapon against ignorance and poverty, some rural Mississippians regarded the movement as a threat to the autonomy of local communities.
School consolidation came to the South as part of a set of educational reforms imported from the North and Midwest. Through groups like the Southern Education Board, industrialists from the region collaborated with northern philanthropists to publicize and fund campaigns for consolidation, compulsory attendance laws, longer school terms, and increased educational expenditures. Because it infused the application of corporate techniques and business efficiency with the noblesse oblige of deceased cotton aristocrats, the educational crusade exemplified the ethos of the New South.
The movement in Mississippi had deep corporate roots. As early as 1871 state superintendent of schools H. R. Pease called for adapting the control structure of railroad companies to the administration of the state’s schools. J. C. Hardy, the superintendent of schools in Jackson, renewed Pease’s campaign in 1899 and proposed a central body of administrative experts as an alternative to local management by untrained county superintendents. By 1905 the movement had erupted into a full-blown educational reform campaign.
That campaign bore fruit in 1910, when the state legislature authorized counties to build consolidated schools and pass taxes to pay for transportation to the new facilities. Most counties quickly closed old schools and built larger ones. But the arguments that made the virtues of consolidation obvious to county and state officials did not convince all Mississippians so quickly. In small communities, parents worried about the higher taxes the new schools would require, the distance their children would have to travel to attend school, the former rivals with whom their children would now learn and play, and the decreased control parents would have over curriculum and teachers. Consolidation also exacerbated generational tensions about young men and women leaving behind farms for towns and cities.
Though resistance sometimes took drastic and violent forms—arsonists burned some of the new school buildings, and a student fatally shot the principal at East Lincoln High School—reformers ultimately won over public opinion. The implementation of school consolidation conformed to a general pattern of centralization in rural life. Critics may bemoan certain aspects of homogenization, but the positive effects of school consolidation—significant increases in school attendance, drastic decreases in illiteracy, and the general improvement of education in the state—make the movement one of the more successful reform efforts in Mississippi’s history.
- Stephen Edward Cresswell, Rednecks, Redeemers, and Race: Mississippi after Reconstruction, 1877–1917 (2006)
- Spencer J. Maxcy, Peabody Journal of Education (April 1976)
- C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (1951)