Is Anthony School Worth Mourning?
Published 10:30 am Thursday, April 29, 2021
The first time I stepped into Anthony School, the building was a ruin on its way to becoming a parking lot. Four columns stood empty. The backhoe had torn down the distinctive pediment that rested on those columns for ninety years. An arched entryway opened into a pile of debris. I once considered Anthony School eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as an example of a segregated, whites-only public school that became, in response to the Civil Rights Movement, a private religious school. If Anthony School was historic, though, was it worth preserving? In an era where the preservation of nineteenth-century symbols is a household conversation, the demolition of Anthony School highlights the challenges of preserving problematic twentieth-century spaces.
A Demonstration School
Anthony School arose out of the changing needs of the Third District Agricultural and Mechanical School, one of the many antecedent names of Georgia Southwestern State University. Until the 1920s, the college resembled what today would be called a high school. Girls as young as thirteen and boys as young as fourteen took high school classes alongside specific farming and home economics courses. When the school became the Americus Normal College, a new curriculum added college courses and phased out high school ones. The school also trained teachers. “Students who were graduated from the junior college received with their diplomas a provision junior college certificate from the State Department of Education,” Macy Bishop Gray writes, “if their course of study included ten hours in education.”
As the college’s mission changed, the Sumter County Board of Education built Anthony School as a demonstration school. From 1931 until 1949, student teachers observed and practiced teaching at Anthony School. The proximity to Georgia Southwestern led some students to enroll at the college upon graduation. J. Frank Myers, future mayor of Americus, graduated from Anthony School in 1937, and continued to drive the bus for his old high school as he attended Georgia Southwestern.
This early layer of Anthony was historic for two reasons. First, as a small county school and a demonstration school for Georgia Southwestern, it served as a local example of educational trends in the mid-twentieth century. The building helps one understand the evolution of Georgia Southwestern. Unfortunately, when Denise P. Messick added the Third District A & M School/Georgia Southwestern College Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places, Anthony School was not included as a contributing building. “Across Anthony Street sits the former Anthony School,” Messick wrote in passing, “a historic building that is not owned by GSW and is occupied by a government agency.” The ties between Anthony School and GSW had become muddled by the early twentieth-first century.
The Anthony School, in its first life, was also eligible for the National Register as a specific type of building. Its construction reflected the era of segregation as an example of the architecture of racial segregation. Historian Robert R. Weyeneth writes, “Racial segregation was established architecturally in two major ways: through architectural isolation and through architectural partitioning.” Anthony School, like the Third District A & M School, required no signs to enforce segregation. As with other so-called white spaces, differentiation mattered more to than literal separation. African Americans likely built or helped build Anthony School and likely worked there after its completion. All the locals would have known that Anthony School, like Georgia Southwestern, was a white school.
From Anthony to Southland
When Henry King Stanford, President of Georgia Southwestern College, announced that Anthony School would not be used as a practice school in 1949, it raised the issue of what would happen to the eighteen-year-old building. The location of a county school so near the city was becoming problematic. The Americus Board of Education proposed eliminating the Anthony District and splitting its territory between city and county schools. The Sumter County Board of Education rejected the offer. By 1950, the school was so crowded that the county board authorized its superintendent to contract with GSW for overflow.
Rivalries between county and city schools ran deep. Local white families worried (correctly) that the county school board would one day cut Anthony School district and they would have to send their children elsewhere. In 1959, the city board asked to use the building. The county board considered leasing the building to the city under certain restrictions, including keeping $25,000 in fire insurance, but ultimately voted to keep the school. A compromise, proposed by Jimmy Carter, moved some county students to other districts and admitted city children to Anthony. Two years later, the “Anthony School situation” arose again. This time the county school board began leasing Anthony School to the city for $1 per year. This arrangement went on for five years.
During the years of this city-county leasing agreement, Carter left the county school board to run for State Senate and the Civil Rights Movement became increasingly visible in Americus. For a brief time, Anthony School desegregated. Civil Rights Activist Bobby Fuse attended the 8th grade at Anthony School. But Anthony School soon became a casualty in the reaction against desegregation. Unlike Americus High School, which segregationists (probably) burned to the ground in January 1964, what happened to Anthony School took place in the open. In 1966, the county school board declared the building surplus, advertised it for sale, and promptly sold it for $5105.75 to The Southland Academy, Inc. The price was $20,000 less than the hypothetical fire insurance policy the county board wanted the city board to purchase for use of the building. As a bonus, the county board threw in all educational equipment and supplies inside the building.
Selling Anthony School was a specific historic event as well as part of a pattern of resistance to the Civil Rights Movement that took place throughout southern states. By 1975, as many as 4,000 private schools educated up to 750,000 southern white students. Although these schools are often labeled as “segregation academies” by critics or “religious schools” by supporters, historian Ansley Quiros argues race and religion were motivating factors. In other words, Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that outlawed segregated schools and Engle v. Vitale (1962) that outlawed official school prayers both fueled the private school movement. “These schools, like Americus’s Southland Academy,” Quiros writes, “both resisted integration rulings and promoted a particular theological vision for education, founded not only as an act of political opposition, but, according to the founders themselves, as one of religious devotion.”
The founders of Southland Academy expressed these intertwined religious and political concerns. In 1967, after a protracted struggle with the Internal Revenue Service to receive tax-exempt status as a non-profit educational institution, Southland officials reflected on the private school movement. “Only recently has a great interest developed in private schooling in the heretofore public-school oriented South,” they told the Americus Times-Recorder. “We believe this interest is due to increasing concern over the loss of local control over public schools, over the Supreme Court decision concerning prayer in schools, and over the use of schools as tools to bring about social revolution, rather than the purposes for which they were created—education.” In the minds of local school officials, concerns about “prayer in schools” and “social revolution” led to the creation of Southland Academy.
Anthony School, 2016.
The Challenges of Preservation
Historic preservation planning is not neutral. Whether buildings are demolished or retained shapes how future generations understand the journey to the present. It is easier to preserve historic places that match our nation’s values of equality and justice. Anthony School, in contrast, offered a double challenge. First, it was an example of the architecture of racial segregation for most of its life as a public school. Even more challenging, its resurrection in 1967 as a segregated private school made it a powerful example of white resistance to civil rights and the broader conservative rebuke of federal intervention in education.
Anthony School did not meet its end with a bulldozer solely because of this complicated history. It would have been costly to rehabilitate the building and the University System of Georgia would not have allowed Georgia Southwestern to acquire it for that purpose. Yet the series of events that made demolition more likely began with its sale in 1966. Unmoored from its connection to GSW and public schools, its future became precarious. When Southland Academy sold Anthony School in 1974 for $35,000, its long-term future became even more uncertain. When Anthony School came into the hands of the Georgia Southwestern Foundation, its future was sealed.
The decision to demolish Anthony School for parking may be understandable, but it is still a loss. Historic buildings are like witnesses. They can be called upon to testify in reckoning with tough, multidimensional history. When the bulldozer razed Anthony School this month, we lost a witness to our local past.