Schools in Texas experienced phenomenal development during the state's first century, beginning with informal open-air classrooms and one-room schools in the 1830s and continuing up to modern elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools built with oil money in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of these schools remain today and offer a unique starting point for learning about the history of education in Texas. To preserve this history, Mary Black and Bruce Jordan set out to find and photograph historically significant school buildings across the state. The documentary record they present in Early Texas Schools shows how ardently Texans of all races and walks of life have aspired to educate their children, succeeding even in the face of geographical isolation, poverty, and racism.
Early Texas Schools gathers images of schools built from the 1850s to the 1930s, as well as in all regions of the state. The buildings tell many remarkable stories, including how Anglos, African Americans, Mexican Americans, German immigrants, and other groups approached the education of their children. Particularly interesting are the stories of African American and Mexican American schools, which provided the only formal education their students could obtain during the era of segregation. Accompanying the photographs is a concise history of education in Texas, from the very rudimentary instruction available during the Republic to the development of modern universities around the turn of the twentieth century.
This is the story of education in Texas, the first chapter so to speak. Like the state itself, this story is large, having many facets and characters just as diverse as the state. It can't all be told in one sitting. We're just telling the first part, from around 1850 to the 1930s.
As families moved into the new territory known as Texas, the first goal was to settle on the land and make it productive. What quickly followed was the desire for education for children, at least through the primary grades, before they had to help support the family.
Schools were built as they were needed and wherever someone donated the land. Some schools started in the shade of a large tree. Others began in dugouts. Families contributed wood for buildings if that was all they could afford. Even bachelor cowboys chipped in money. Simple one-room frame structures with pot-bellied stoves for heat served multiple purposes as schools, churches, community buildings, and dance halls, all in one.
In the early days, teachers often lived with families, moving from family to family throughout the year. The standard tenure for teachers was often only a year or two before they moved on to jobs with better pay and more stability.
School districts did not exist until counties were organized. In 1891, Motley County, located in the Panhandle northwest of Lubbock, was organized. With the organization of the new county came the first school district in that area: Whiteflat. The district started with twenty students. School attendance peaked in 1931 with 1703 students, and by 1939, there were 14 districts in Motley County. In 1972-1973, due to dropping enrollment and increased costs of operation, the districts consolidated, like many others before them. Today there is one district in the county, with one building and 165 students.
Small districts, 1-A's that graduate perhaps no more than ten to twelve students, are barely hanging on, but they persevere because of the tenacity and historical ties of the communities. Consolidation is inevitable, though, and this way of life will vanish soon into memory. When we look at some of the new secondary schools in Texas, large modern structures resembling college campuses built—in some cases—to educate over 2400 students, it is hard to remember the simple beginnings of education in Texas.
My grandmother started teaching in San Angelo, Texas, before she moved to Sanger to raise a family. She was known as Miss Neppie to generations of students. As a child walking those hot, dusty summer streets in the mornings on the way to the grocery store with my grandmother, I would hear people call out, "Hello, Miss Neppie," and see them tip their hats. Those greetings set the tone for what would become my profession and passion in life: teaching and photographing the remains of former days.
—Bruce F. Jordan