Posted: April 26, 2012 – 12:01am
G.G. Rigsby/Effingham Now
Effingham County is planning on swapping about 97 acres of undeveloped land in the southern part of the county to the board of education for the former Central High School, which sits on 23 acres in Springfield.
Central High School was an “equalization” school that had only black students from 1956 through 1970. Some alumni have been meeting every week for the last year, discussing ways to preserve the school and bring more programs to area residents.
Statewide, about 10 of the equalization schools have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Jeanne Cyriaque, African American programs coordinator for the historic preservation division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. She spoke about the schools at a recent meeting of Central High alumni.
Georgia spent $30 million building 500 equalization schools all across the state in the 1950s. It was a massive resistance to integration, trying to prove that schools for blacks could be separate but equal, she said.
Cyriaque, who started getting involved in preservation of equalization schools about 10 years ago, said buildings have to be at least 50 years old to be on the Historic Register, and the schools only recently became eligible.
She said the schools have a signature look. They tended to be built on large campuses, with more than one building, connected by outdoor walkways and interior courtyards. They had flat roofs and lots of windows.
The other equalization school in Effingham County was in Guyton. It has been torn down.
Franklin Goldwire, former principal at South Effingham High School and a 1965 graduate of Central High, said the school opened in early 1956 and served black students in grades one through 12 through 1970, when county schools were integrated.
The building then became a junior high school for students of all races. It was turned into a middle school, then was vacant briefly, then became an elementary school before being closed again, Goldwire said.
These days, the county’s recreation department uses the school’s gymnasium and some of the buildings are used for Head Start and Even Start programs.
A deal is in the works for the county to swap the vacant land for the high school property, which should be completed this summer.
South county landowners Chris and Barry Sheehy gave the vacant 97 acres to the county and later gave an adjacent 128 acres, also vacant, to the school system.
Barry Sheehy said he would like for the school system to own both parcels.
The swap is good for the county and the school system, said school Superintendent Randy Shearouse. The county has a lot of uses for the school, Shearouse said.
“It’s a real positive for us and the county,” he said. “I think it will work for everyone.”
Shearouse said the school system will have to declare the school as “surplus” and the county will have to hold public hearings before making the swap, which would be of property only, with no dollars changing hands.
Cyriaque urged alumni to start paperwork to get the Springfield school on the National Register, which takes 18 months to two years. She suggests forming partnerships to preserve the buildings, because they are so large.
Other communities in Georgia use them for such things as community or cultural centers or alternative schools. A school in Rome, Ga., has classrooms that were adopted by community organizations and sponsor mentoring programs for area youth.
Cyriaque said if Effingham becomes a “certified local government,” it might qualify for some preservation grants to refurbish the school. Tourism grants also might be available.
County commissioners recently chose to put the new jail at the current jail site rather than at the Central High School site.
“I appreciate the history of the school and am interested in preserving that,” said county Commissioner Steve Mason, who also attended the recent meeting of the school’s alumni. “I don’t think there’s anybody that has any intention of bulldozing the school.”
Mason said some of the buildings could be used as an administrative area for the sheriff’s office. A youth leadership academy also would be a good use for the buildings, he said.
The alumni group, led in part by Goldwire, is interested in starting a parent university and tutorial after-school program.
“Our organization is in it for the long haul,” Goldwire said. “We vow to continue this mission even if we have to package it up and put it on the back of a pickup truck.”
County Administrator David Crawley, who also attended the recent alumni meeting, said the school is in relatively good shape but would need some utility upgrades — a better water source and lines for Internet access — before it could house county offices.
Crawley said the school presents an opportunity. “From our standpoint, the county has kind of grown into every old, cheap, free building we can get into,” he said. “A central school site would give us a central site for services. We’d have a chance to get out of old buildings that are not historic and are separated from other services.”
He said the grounds of the old school could be used more by the community. “The fence kind of inhibits use by the community,” he said. “There’s a lot of land, a lot of potential.”
Mason said the county commission might move from the former church building it meets in now to the school. “There are a lot of options there,” he said. “Let’s quit looking short-term.”