Young Love and Old Schools

1939 GHS Deltonian staff, with several of Sara's lifelong friends. Front row: Mary Charlotte Clarke (her best friend), Sara, Joyce Whittington. Back row, middle: Spot Pettey

“Prior to starting to school most of our friends had been children in the neighborhood or those who attended the First Baptist Church Sunday School. It was fun meeting others, and some of my special ones were a boy named Spot Pettey, another named Joe George Saunders and a girl named Joyce Whittington. I was very impressed with Joe George because he lived in a big two story house on River Road and wore little white linen suits to school and was the great grandson of U.S. Senator J.Z. George. The fact that he had the biggest pencil box in the class, with two drawers instead of just one, also made an impression. Then when Daddy brought home an insurance company calendar with a picture of Joe George, all dressed up and with curls, on the front of it, I just knew he must be the richest boy in the world.

Fifty years after Sara first met Joe George Saunders, she visits with his niece, Liz Williams of Cotesworth.

” One time when I was sick he sent me a box of candy from the drugstore and then invited me over to his house to play. Later when I was in high school I dated Joe George. He wanted to be my steady boyfriend and his mother, whom I liked very much, apparently decided we were meant for each other. She was always inviting me over for meals. After dating him for a few months I decided that all of his glamour had been confined to the first grade, and I broke that romance off.

“Spot and I remained friends throughout our school years, but we were more like buddies. When we were in junior high school he drove a big Packard automobile and would load all of us in it for a ride.”

Tricia and Sara talking with Spot Pettey, maybe in his Packard. Boarding house across from the Stott House on East Washington is visible in the background.

“At Davis School the boys and girls were segregated on the playgrounds at recess, with the boys playing on the west side and the girls on the east. In the springtime the girls would line the sidewalks playing jacks or jump rope, and the boys would be on the other side playing marbles or ball. They had the only sliding boards, and it was only in the afternoon when school let out that the girls had a chance to go down the sliding boards. We had big swings with heavy chains, and you could really pump them and go almost to the sky. It wasn’t unusual for someone to get hurt on them, and Mama was always cautioning us to be careful on the playground. Finally Miss Daisy Wright, a rich lady whose husband dug the first artesian well in Greenwood and started the light and water plant, donated a winding sliding board for the girls, but Mama wasn’t sure that was safe either.

Daisy Wright's home on Fulton Street. Photo courtesy of Mary Rose Carter

She also donated the stone fountain with a plaque on it honoring Mr. Wright. For many years the fountain stood between Davis School and the Junior High while children quenched their thirst from all four sides, but it recently was moved after the Davis School fire over to where the Junior High had once stood.

One of Mr. Wright's Artesian wells, with Davis School in the background. These wells supplied the stone fountain which still stands on the old Davis School campus (but it doesn't work any more). Photo courtesy of Donny Whitehead, aboutgreenwoodms.com

“Davis School was still being used when it was destroyed by fire seven or eight years ago.[Ed. note: December, 1980]. We loved to go back in it and could almost imagine we were back in Miss Joiner’s first grade. The night it burned I stood watching it crumble along with many others who had many memories of their childhood years spent there. We cried and told stories of what we remembered most. Each of us had somehow thought that Davis School would be there forever, a monument to the thousands of kids who had learned to read ‘The Little Red Hen’ and ‘The Gingerbread Boy’ in those two first grade rooms.”

Sara was the most relentless keeper of friends I’ve ever known. She never forgot a name (except for that cross-eyed playground bully who terrorized her and Omega Lary) and she never let old friends drift away into oblivion. Among the boxes of her things that sit here in my house are several little address books with obsolete information carefully scratched out and new phone numbers and addresses pencilled in. She would surprise friends with “out of the blue” phone calls almost until she died, and I hope they got even a fraction of the joy that she did with those long-distance reconnections. She talked with her best friend, Mary Charlotte Clarke, just about every day for almost eight decades, which I find quite remarkable. Daddy laughed about South Central Bell having to replace a worn-out telephone in our kitchen in the late ’50s (the repairman said he’d never done that before), but what could have been better than keeping up with the people who populated her memories and made her happy? We’ll meet many more of those friends as we work through her memoirs, and I hope they’re all having a big old perpetual class reunion every day now.

Also somewhere in these boxes and albums is a clipping from the Commonwealth the day after Davis School burned. I haven’t looked too hard for it, because it still upsets me. I remember the phone call I got from my mother on that cold December morning. I assumed she was calling to talk about John Lennon’s murder the night before, but she quickly let me know that that event was not even newsworthy. “Old Davis School is gone,” she said, and you could hear the heartbreak behind those words. I was stunned, and I agreed with her assessment of this tragedy. The Beatles were not even in the same universe of “What Matters.” That grand old brick landmark, the repository of so many happy days for her and her siblings, was a smoking ruin, lost forever. Who knows what might have started the blaze, but she was convinced that eighty years of linseed oil on hardwood floors sent the flames racing through the hallways and up into the towers, defeating the Greenwood Fire Department before they were even out the doors of their stations.

I’ve spent twenty years researching “lost” architecture around Mississippi, and I’ve heard a lot of sad stories, but none impacted me more than Davis School. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Greenwood still had that proud structure? Or the 1914 building, which was just demolished for absolutely no reason except civic bullheadness a few years later?I look at the old Greenwood High School now and wonder when the public school administrators will decide its time is done, and I just hope they will stir up a hornet’s nest the likes of which they’ve never seen if they so much as remove a brick. Keep your guard up, Greenwood.

Greenwood High School, 1924. Photo courtesy of Mary Rose Carter

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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