Press Release - March 23, 2017
The West Feliciana Historical Society Museum, in celebration of Black History Month 2017, unveiled a new exhibit entitled John S. Dawson: An Educational Legacy. A special “opening night” reception was held February 23 to kick-off the exhibit and was well attended and enjoyed by all. Special guests included Ken Dawson, grandson of John S. Dawson; Dr. Henry Hardy, President of the John S. Dawson Alumni Association Foundation; and Mr. Rufus McKnight, also representing the foundation.
The Dawson exhibit remains on display at the museum and the public is encouraged to visit and learn more about this inspirational part of West Feliciana history. Historical Society President, Susie Tully, and Museum Curator, Cliff Deal, are working to incorporate this exhibit into the permanent displays. Tully notes, “The story of John S. Dawson and the school he started remind us of the hurdles that African Americans overcame in their journey to equality. The J.S. Dawson Alumni Association and Foundation members are to be commended for their efforts to preserve the school, including having the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
A Legacy Unfolds
On a cold January morning in 1890, nineteen-year-old John S. Dawson arrived by train in West Feliciana. Together with John Jones and C.H. Argue, the two men who were responsible for bringing Dawson to Laurel Hill from Mississippi, they made their way to the Rosemound Baptist Church. John S. Dawson announced to the gathering that he was the new school teacher.
On Monday morning he began to register students for the new school. Before the week was over, 125 children were registered. Only 20 of these could read. Thus began the amazing story of John S. Dawson and his educational legacy in West Feliciana Parish. The earliest known publicly organized school for African Americans in West Feliciana was the Laurel Hill School. Today, known as the Dawson School, the old structure still stands in Laurel Hill.
At that time in Louisiana, in the wake of Plessy vs. Ferguson and its “separate but equal” mandate, segregation continued to make education for African American children practically unavailable, even as white school systems were funded and new facilities constructed. In rural Louisiana, Baptist churches provided space for education in one-room buildings. In West Feliciana Parish, churches at Afton Villa, Elm Park, Sage Hill and Hollywood served this purpose. During the early 20th century, educational opportunities for African American children were few and far between. Rural schools were isolated and just getting to school was difficult. As most families farmed for a living, children missed school while working during planting and harvest. Rural parish school boards were poor, and the rural black schools were poorer.
Professor Dawson Begins
They called him “Professor” and he single handedly organized the education process at Laurel Hill. He was lucky to have a two-story, wood framed school building (used also as a Masonic lodge) that could handle larger classes. Dawson taught the basics and the students learned quickly. Eventually two assistant teachers were hired, 15-year-old Amelia Brown and Corrine Lee. The students who excelled were also called on to help with instruction. Under John S. Dawson’s leadership for the next thirty-years and with the continued support of the community, the Dawson School in Laurel Hill prospered. His students went on to high school if they could travel to McKinley High School in Baton Rouge, the nearest black high school. Some made it to college and through his inspiration became teachers.
The Next Generation
During the 1930’s ,after teaching for thirty years at Laurel Hill, John S. Dawson became principal at the Raspberry Baptist Church School and also served as Senior Deacon and Sunday School Superintendent in the church. The school was located off Ferdinand St. behind the present site of the Historical Society Museum. He married Corrine Lee and they had four children: John M. Dawson, Thomas Dawson, Marian Dawson and Brunetta Dawson. Soon to become educators like their father, they would leave their own mark on West Feliciana education.
Secondary education for African Americans was slow to develop over the first half of the 20th century. Rural black schools only provided a 7th grade education. By 1945, there were 80 black, four-year high schools in Louisiana, but thirteen parishes were still without approved schools. One of these was West Feliciana Parish.
Once again John S. Dawson came to the forefront as a leader in the community. Planning for a new high school began with Dawson securing the land through a donation to the parish from the Barrow, Richardson, and Nolan families. The land on Hwy. 66 was specifically to be used for a black high school.
John S. Dawson passed away in 1950, before the new school would open its doors in 1951. But his legacy lived on as the school was named in his honor, the John S. Dawson High School. At his funeral people lined the street to honor his life and contribution to West Feliciana as the carriage carried him to the Raspberry Baptist Church for the last time. His sons carried on the legacy at Dawson High School as John M. Dawson was the first principal from 1951 to 1961; and Thomas Dawson served as principal from 1961 to 1969.
Laura Ewen Blokker of Southeast Preservation wrote, “The opening of the John S. Dawson High School in 1951 was a tremendous advancement of education in West Feliciana Parish. The opening of the elementary wing for lower grades in 1962 was also significant. It consolidated the elementary education that had previously occurred at the disparate church-based schools in one, new modern facility. The separate gymnasium, band building, home education/industrial arts wing, and agriculture shop further expanded the curriculum and extracurricular capacities of this modern school plant.”
The school provided a diverse curriculum and a quality education through the dedicated efforts of the excellent teaching staff. Many of the Dawson alumni continued on to college and have been successful in a variety of professions as a direct result of the excellent education provided at their West Feliciana Parish school
John S. Dawson High School alumni include: over two hundred college graduates, doctorate degrees in agriculture and mathematics, a chancellor at Southern University, a judge in South Carolina, and a retired U.S. Army general.
John S, Dawson High School closed in 1969 following the Supreme Court decision in the Carter v. West Feliciana Parish School Board which mandated all the area’s schools be desegregated by February 1, 1970. The parish school board chose to reassign the students to other schools and closed John S. Dawson High School. After eighteen years of serving the crucial need of providing modern secondary education to the African American population when it was otherwise unavailable, the school was abandoned.
John S. Dawson, the teacher and visionary, had done an extraordinary job while creating a legacy for all of the citizens of West Feliciana Parish. John S. Dawson High School was vital in its historical role for African American education in West Feliciana Parish.
Preserving the Legacy
For years after it was closed, John S. Dawson High School sat forlorn and empty out on Hwy 66, waiting for the bell to ring. Eventually, it was covered by vegetation, windows were broken, and ceilings fell in. And the story would have ended there had the school been torn down.
But there was another chapter to be written in the Dawson legacy. Ken Dawson, grandson of John S. Dawson and son of Thomas Dawson, led the charge as approximately 100 members of the John S. Dawson Alumni Association and Foundation pledged to save this important West Feliciana structure. Along with Dr. Henry Hardy, class of 1958 and president of the Alumni Association, the group applied for grants, launched a massive clean-up effort in 2010, and successfully had the property placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. The Alumni Foundation continues to work on plans for developing the property and renovating the school building. Ken Dawson explains that one day they hope to see a community center and park built that would serve the entire West Feliciana Parish population.
The legacy and spirit of John S. Dawson is still alive and vibrant today and he is still teaching and influencing the population of West Feliciana Parish in a positive manner, just as he always did.
The West Feliciana Historical Society is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization whose mission is to promote the preservation of its historical, cultural and architectural heritage through education, advocacy, stewardship and investment. Of utmost importance to the society is to instill respect and appreciation of the past, improve the present, and plan for the future, while presenting history in a way that educates and enlightens residents and visitors alike. For more information visit www.westfelicianahisoricalsociety.org.