Prior to 1874, there were one-room schools in operation across Walker County. The schools we re open, drafty, and not very conducive to learning, one may think. But not so, says various people who experienced this era. The children did verbal responses to questions called reciting. The other younger children heard this. As much was learned from classmates, sometimes, as from the teacher.
There were about 48 schools for white children and two schools for black children, with one teacher for each school. There were about 1800 white pupils, and not more than 20 or 30 black children.
The schools did not open until July, as many of the children helped with the field work and could not attend school until the crops were laid by. They were supposed to be open for three months, but many of them closed with two and one half months session, as the larger children had to stop to pull fodder. This caused the teachers and the children left to lose interest, so the trustees thought it best to close.
The school buildings were so open and cold, and the roads so bad that it was almost impossible for the children to attend in the winter. Early spring planting had to be done with their help, so summer was almost the only school time. However, we had a good school in Jasper taught by Professor Robbins; this school was open the entire nine months and was able to continue with the funds supplemented by the patrons and boarding students.
Most of the teachers were men. We usually had two or three ladies teaching, but as the patrons felt that a lady could not control the children, they felt that a man be elected to teach “their child.”
Teachers’ salaries were from $25 to $40 a month; however, in those days a teacher could get board for $6.00 - $8.00 per month in the county.
In 1874, Governor Houston came into office and a new law was passed to issue one million dollars in state obligations bearing 8 percent interest payable semi-annually by any state bank in Alabama, This money was issued to the teachers and was worth about 80 or 85 cents on the dollar, except where taxes were to be paid, and then it was worth one hundred cents.
There were four grades of certificates, the fourth grade being the highest and the first grade the lowest.
After 1877, the school laws were changed, making the first grade the highest and the fourth grade the lowest. We had $5,000 public school funds annum for the schools of Walker County.
Striking facts are that during this time there was not in the county a school with more than one teacher, that men almost without exception constituted the teaching force. Most of the schools were taught in church buildings, the few regular schoolhouses being rude log cabins without fireplaces or other means of heating.
The County Board of Education consisted of three members, the Superintendent, and two others. All of these were elected by the people at the same time. James Carter Scott’s colleagues on the board were C.P. Owens and James Cox.
No one would want to go back to those days, nor would we want to see our children in those circumstances. However, it does us good sometimes to look backward from where we have come in order to appreciate what we have today. Nine month school years are now being considered not enough. There are some that are moving toward 12 months with two weeks inserted through the year for off-time. It is a proven fact that children forget much in the 3-months period of summer and teachers have to repeat the last part of the previous year in order to begin new work.
There would be many drawbacks to this plan — two working parents being one of them. Many teachers return for graduate work in the summer thus updating their credentials. As it is often said, “Old habits are hard to change.”
We went in time from the man-dominated classroom to the female dominated classroom. Thankfully now, there is a healthy mixture of the two without prejudice. It is good that men are filling an important role in the elementary schools. Children need role models in both genders — and now that is found in the schools.
Time changes, sometimes for bad, sometimes for good. One thing is sure — change is here. We move with the times or we create havoc for our children. The most important commodity any county, state, or nation has is its children.
I hope you enjoyed a brief visit to the past and feel full of pride at the changes for the better for our teachers and children.
Ruth Baker is a retired educator and a published author. She has written on the history of Walker County and its people for over 27 years. She may be reached at 205-387-0545.