I had not really expected the evening to provide a refresher course in the contemporary history of public education. We attended the event to participate in a fund-raiser and show our support for what we think is a worthwhile community project, the Rufus F. Hardin Museum.
This was the ninth annual banquet to raise funds for the museum and it provided ample opportunity to raise the understanding of the historical contribution of the old school house. The program also served to remind us that our cultural history is intimate and close to all of us, even though we may have experienced it differently.
The draw for developing “Heritage Tourism” in a community are projects that provide a look at what life in the area may have been like in the past, even the not too distant past. Such attractions provide the basis for tourism growth. Tourist spots like Fredericksburg and Granbury developed because they provided something unique to visitors, something different than the cookie cutter shopping strips, chain restaurants and big-box retailers that are showing up in every market. Those cities grew into the “must see” destinations they are today because of Sunday houses, opera houses, picturesque courthouses and similar attractions. The same dynamic is driving the growth in winery tourism in the state.
I was in the fifth grade in 1954, attending an all-white neighborhood school in an integrated school system in the midwest. If the Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., case was discussed in school, I do not remember it. However, I suspect it was a different experience for students attending public school in Brownwood. One year later, 1955, my world had not changed, but in Brownwood, a historic event occurred. Brownwood schools became integrated. For the first time, white children and black children began attending the same school. The Brown decision overturned the concept of separate but equal that had been the legal opinion for nearly 60 years following the ruling by the court in a Missouri case, Plessy v. Ferguson. In Brown, the court ruled that separate schools for black and white children were unequal. While some areas in the south attempted to delay the implementation of the law, the Brownwood school district became integrated in the 1955-56 school year.
The Hardin School opened in September, 1917, with three classrooms and an auditorium. The name officially became R.F. Hardin in 1934 in honor of the school’s long-time teacher and principal, Professor Rufus Hardin. For four decades it was the only site of formal education for African American students in Brown County. In 1947, with its 12 grades, Hardin was a fully affiliated and accredited high school. With integration, the modern era of public school education arrived in the community. Hardin became known as R.F. Hardin Elementary, a neighborhood school, one of several in the school district. Grades nine through 12 for all students were taught in the same high school.
One of the first committees I served on after arriving in Brownwood was the city’s civic improvement committee, the group coordinating the restoration of the Santa Fe Train Depot in Brownwood. The experience helped me to learn and understand the significance of the railroad in the growth, development and vitality of the community. My dad was a railroad man and I remember traveling by train every summer. Sleeping in the upper berth on the train for a city kid was like overnight camping. It is an experience that most young people have not had, and probably will not experience. The Depot project served as a catalyst for the Harvey House restoration, and the new transportation museum being built in Brownwood. Collectively they offer visitors a historical learning experience.
I do not know how many of the old “Colored Only” schools remain in Texas. I don’t know of any. But realizing the significant role the R. F. Hardin School played in the contemporary history of Brownwood, I appreciate it all the more as a symbol of the common heritage we all share. Renovating the school and opening it as a museum will add to the heritage attraction of the city.
Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.