In 1917 the Brownwood ISD board decided to build a new school for its African-American students after their original schoolhouse was destroyed in a fire.
The board had attempted to sell off some of the blackened stone from Coggin School, which had also burned, but didn’t find enough interest. So they decided to build the “negro” school with stones salvaged from Coggin.
Carl Bodiford is a longtime historian who moved to Brownwood last summer. He has immersed himself in the history of his new home, so much so that he is already one of the foremost experts on the history of the Rufus F. Hardin School which was named in 1934 after a former school principal. “I find that interesting, personally,” Bodiford said while standing outside the Hardin building on Friday. “The fact that they used cast-off stone to build a school for the black students — it’s kind of a suggestion of an attitude.”
Twenty years ago a group of local leaders and former Hardin students began working on an ambitious restoration project, intending to save the vacant structure and turn it into a museum and community center. Already about $100,000 has been poured into the schoolhouse, fixing the leaky roof and other structural problems. But it’s obvious upon entering the building that there’s still a long way to go.
Hank Hunter, president of the Hardin project board, said it will cost about $400,000 to finish up the renovation and open the museum to the public. He envisions a facility that can be rented out for events with dedicated exhibition space, a new proscenium stage to evoke the Hardin’s former one and as many artifacts as can be found.
And ideally he’d like it to be finished while there are still Hardin alumni living in the area — like Marian Mitchell Thomas.
Thomas attended Hardin until 1958, when she left for a newly-integrated Brownwood Middle School. She said integration was not a particularly negative experience for her, that her teachers and classmates were overwhelmingly respectful and supportive. But some of the boys in her class, she said, had a rougher go.
“It wasn’t bad for me,” Thomas said, “but [the boys] would tell you it was horrible. You were as good as you could perform on the field.”
To its credit, Brownwood ISD was one of the pioneers of integration in the state of Texas. Though Thomas attended Hardin until 1958, Brownwood High fully integrated in 1955 — just one year after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that made school segregation illegal.
Thomas said that despite its disadvantages, like hand-me-down supplies, Hardin School cultivated a tight-knit community of students, parents and educators that made excellence a priority. “They told us that we could succeed, and we could be whatever we want to be,” Thomas said. “Don’t ever let somebody tell you that you can’t do it.”
That motto can apply nicely now to the Hardin building, a restoration project whose momentum has been inconsistent at best. But with advocates like Thomas and Bodiford, Hunter is optimistic about the future of the museum.
“Every project needs a great story, and a storyteller,” Hunter said. “Carl and Marian are finally providing that for us.”
For more information about the Hardin Museum project or how to donate, contact Hunter at 325-642-2779.