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  • A Modern School Plant:Rural Consolidated Schools in Mississippi, 1910-1955
  • Jennifer V. Opager Baughn (bio)

In 1931, Mississippi's educational leaders looked back over the past twenty years and declared a celebration of "Twenty Years of Progress." Using the Industrial Age tools of consolidation and standardization, they had pulled rural students out of the intellectual desert that had defined country schools in the nineteenth century and established self-contained educational villages in previously isolated hamlets around the state. Central to this story and foundational to the success of the rural school program was the strict enforcement of standardized building plans, specifically the "alphabet series" forms. While the mass production of identical buildings brought skepticism or outright hostility from national architects, school officials of the time hailed the results as a crowning achievement in the progress of education for rural communities.

Philosophically located within the Progressive reform movement, consolidation (including its accompanying vocational education) and standardization in Mississippi operated for "whites only," thus leaving the state's large rural black population to pull itself up with minimal public support and declining private philanthropy. This application of progressive practices to white rural schools brought about some parity between the two competing factions of Mississippi's white community, the planter/merchant class and the small farmers, furthering the ends of those who wanted to ensure the supremacy of whites in the then black-majority state. Simultaneously, consolidation created a new divide in Mississippi's educational system, a divide based on race rather than on urbanization or class, a divide between rural blacks and rural whites that bore far-reaching and devastating fruit.1

Architecturally, Mississippi's Progressive-era consolidation spanned more than forty years and encompassed three slightly overlapping phases. In the first transitional phase from 1910 through the early 1920s, school administrators and architects struggled to understand the implications of rural school buildings larger than one or two classrooms. During the second phase, beginning in 1920 with the publication of the Rosenwald Fund's Community School Plans and extending through the 1930s, a more organized approach to rural consolidated school planning emerged in standardized floor plans called the H-plan and the T-plan. During the same period, rural schools grew into small villages composed of several buildings dedicated to specialized purposes, most commonly teachers' houses, vocational buildings, gymnasiums, and cafeterias (Figure 1). After 1928, white schools began to super-consolidate, merging smaller consolidated schools into larger and more centralized campuses, with bigger buildings and different "alphabet" floor plans, the U-plan and the L-plan, developed to confront this new set of challenges. This four-decade experiment in standardized rural school planning came to an end in the mid-1950s when Mississippi, with its "Equalization" legislation passed in 1953, mounted the most forceful resistance to integration of all the Southern states. Launching a decade-long building program, this legislation sought to finally equalize black and white schools by abandoning many earlier [End Page 43] consolidated schools and creating new, sprawling Modernist campuses in each county.2

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Figure 1.

Cleveland Consolidated School, Kemper County, photo circa 1955. Along with its fleet of buses, this campus included most of the buildings typically associated with a mature consolidated school: a home economics building with lunchroom (behind bus), an administration building, a gymnasium, and a vocational shop. Two teachers' houses completed the educational village. RG 50, Series 1513: School Photograph Scrapbooks, 1950-69, No. 1875. Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Miss.

National Standards for a Progressive Era

There is no doubt about it—from 1915 to 1945 progress in school planning slowed up, and probably the greatest reason was the enactment of codes and regulations. Laws were passed that restricted bilateral lighting. Laws were passed, too, that regulated the size and shape of classrooms. There were even laws that said in just what direction the axis of the classrooms should be oriented. . . . Only a good Mohammedan could catch the spirit of such planning. These laws were passed in good faith, but bad judgment.

— William W. Caudill, Toward Better School Design, 1954.

Although architects commonly criticize the works of the previous generation, the charge by...


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