By the mid-twentieth century, segregated public education was a cornerstone of the South’s Jim Crow system. The U.S. Supreme Court had sanctioned such practices in the 1899 Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education case, which gave states the right to determine both who would be educated in taxpayer public schools and exactly what constituted a “separate but equal” education. In the years following, says historian Charles Bolton, “separate but equal education quickly became a fiction” in Mississippi, and African Americans could do little to oppose these developments because they were being simultaneously disenfranchised (Bolton, The Hardest Deal of All, 13).
In Starkville, the city’s dual public education system evolved gradually, mostly during the early twentieth century. By 1918, a small wooden structure, the city’s Rosenwald School stood near the site of the current Henderson complex; it educated African American students up to the tenth grade. In answer to calls for more educational facilities for African American students, the city of Starkville began building a new, wooden structure on the site in 1926-27, funded primarily by the city of itself with contributions from the Rosenwald Fund and local African Americans. It opened as the Oktibbeha County Training School (OCTS) in the late 1920s.
For Starkville’s African Americans, OCTS represented an improvement by offering them access to secondary education within this dual system. Yet the name carried a stigma. As scholar John A. Peoples said, “In many areas of Mississippi, high schools for blacks were called ‘training schools.’ This was based upon the racist assumption that blacks could not be truly educated, but could only be trained like animals” (Schwartz, American Students Organize, 422).
During the late 1950s, in an effort to preserve the city’s dual education system in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Starkville officials launched various improvement efforts to make the city’s African American schools appear more equal. They hired new teachers, started new curricular programs (such as French), and constructed new school buildings, including two elementary schools and a new high school. They also renamed Oktibbeha County Training School to Henderson High School, after W. C. (Willie Chiles) Henderson, an African American educator in Starkville in the 1910s who served as principal of OCTS/Henderson High from 1959 until 1964. The goal of the renaming, according to Starkville native Dr. Shirley Hanshaw, was to “discourage our going to white schools.” Although Henderson High was never equal to Starkville High, former teachers and students have fond memories of it. They recall its dedicated administrators and teachers and its successful sports teams and band. Shirley Hanshaw’s Interview (see 1:10:42)
In 1970, under the directive of the courts, Starkville finally ended the long practice of racially segregated education. Students from Henderson High School were transferred to Starkville High School, and the building of Henderson High was demoted to Henderson Middle School, housing ninth grade students. That same year, at a time when tensions over school desegregation were running high in the city, the old Rosenwald School on the site burned to the ground.
This project is funded in part by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Mississippi Library Commission, and the Mississippi Humanities Council.