Whitfield Days

Whitfield School 4th grade, 1930-1931. Sara is on the second row, fourth from right. Notice the "Alfalfa" lookalike on the front row, third from left, and the patterned knee socks and knickers the boys wore.

“We were enrolled that September [1929] in Whitfield School, which was not too far from where we lived. It was a small school of Spanish architectural design and not nearly so forbidding as Davis School. I was in the third grade, Mary in the fifth and Tiny in the sixth. My teacher was a Miss Wallace. She was young and pretty, and I liked her as well as my classmates. There was only one class for each grade so you knew everybody.

Whitfield School's entry in a Jackson parade, year unknown

“Our playground was a wooded area in back of the school. This was quite a change from the playground at Davis School, and as I recall there was no playground equipment. We took our lunch to school because the cafeteria only served things like ice cream and jello and boxes of cookies. We would take fifteen cents for our dessert. I liked that until the teacher told Mama that I was only eating desserts for my lunch. Then I had to eat fruit instead of something sweet when I got home.

Whitifield School, front entrance, 1980s

“The school building did not have an auditorium so we had assembly in the big center hall, sitting on the floor because there were no chairs. One time when I was in the sixth grade we had to stand up so long singing that I got weak and fainted, pulling a frail girl named Florence Patrick over on top of me.

Poor "frail" Florence Patrick, who learned not to stand next to Sara.

It

caused a great commotion, and the principal, Miss Trussell, called Mama. Daddy came over and picked me up and took me home to recuperate. The doctor was called to come to the house, but he could find nothing wrong with me. It was later decided that I just could not stand for a long time in one position without getting dizzy, a problem that stayed with me.”

Whitfield School tower, the only portion of the building saved when it was demolished. The children in the picture above were posed under this same archway.

My children always found it hilarious that their grandmother went to Whitfield School, as if that denoted some element of insanity in Sara’s past. The name “Whitfield” has for so long symbolized the State Insane Asylum that it’s difficult to peel the moniker away from that Rankin County hospital. The unique little school on Jackson’s Claiborne Avneue, just across Robinson Road from the Evans’ rental house, was built in 1927 and named in honor Governor Henry Whitfield, who served from 1924 to 1927. He had also been state Superintendent of Education and president of MSCW for sixteen years. Several years after Sara’s days at Whitfield ended, the old Lunatic Asylum on North State Street was abandoned and a sprawling “modern” complex constructed between Brandon and Jackson. It, too, was named for Governor Whitfield, and it has come to symbolize the mentally ill in Mississippi. But to my silly children, anyone who went to Whitfield School must have been crazy, and it only confirmed their suspicions that their fun-loving and often wacky grandmother had been “put away” at an early age.

Sara didn’t let the snickers of two johnny-come-lately children bother her one bit. She was intensely proud of all her schools and cherished the friendships and the teachers that she had known in those long-ago days. Had I taken time to sit down with her and look at that picture on the top of this post, she could have named almost every child and related the life history of many of them. She simply never let anyone go, no matter the years or the distance. And I always braced myself when she began to tell me about one young boy or another, some who she only knew for a few years and others who she dated later. She would tell with great delight of their mischievousness and liveliness and then there would be a pause, a sigh, and I knew what was coming. “His plane disappeared over the English Channel.” Or “He died in a POW camp in France.” Or “The last anyone saw of him was during the Bataan Death March.” Then she would just stare at the picture, at those scrubbed young faces and carefully knotted ties and patterned knee socks, and I knew better than to interrupt. My generation barely escaped war, while hers was decimated by it. I simply don’t know how you can look at an old picture of all your schoolmates and deal with the lost lives and dashed dreams hidden there. I suppose those of Sara’s time just learned to deal with it, as they dealt with so many tough blows.

She and I took these color pictures of Whitfield School after it had been condemned and before the wrecking crews came. As I remember, it was a very warm day, but we got out of the car and walked all around the wonderful gem of a school, looking for all the world like a California mission from the 1700s. I’m glad I took her there, and I’ve often wondered if the school district did indeed incorporate the old bell tower into the new building. One of these days I’ll venture out to West Jackson and take a look.

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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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