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Thursday, August 28, 2014, 10:18 a.m.
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‘We were there’

Former Morrilton school receives historic designation

By Tammy Keith

This article was published June 29, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

morrilton-mayor-stewart-nelson-left-and-his-assistant-karen-hofford-stand-with-perry-brown-in-front-of-the-former-morrilton-colored-school-later-renamed-lw-sullivan-high-school-in-honor-of-the-schools-first-principal-hofford-made-the-push-to-get-the-building-put-on-the-national-register-of-historic-places-the-city-owns-the-building-which-is-occupied-by-morrilton-child-development

Morrilton Mayor Stewart Nelson, left, and his assistant, Karen Hofford, stand with Perry Brown in front of the former Morrilton Colored School, later renamed L.W. Sullivan High School in honor of the school’s first principal. Hofford made the push to get the building put on the National Register of Historic Places. The city owns the building, which is occupied by Morrilton Child Development.

Perry Brown, 86, said “trouble” was his middle name at L.W. Sullivan High School, formerly the Morrilton Colored School, but he later taught sociology and math there.

“I was not valedictorian of our class,” said Brown, who lives in Morrilton. “I had no clue.”

He played basketball and football for the Tigers, he said, and enjoyed the experience.

“I remember John [Sutton], our coach and agriculture instructor. I had to watch my language,” Brown said.

The Morrilton Colored School, which was built in 1934 at 906 W. Rock St., was added in May to the National Register of Historic Places.

Students who attended the former school remember their experiences during a time when blacks and whites attended school separately.

Margarette Ponds Banks, 77, of Omaha, Nebraska, formerly of Morrilton, remembers living across from the school, which sounds convenient, but she didn’t like it.

“I hated that because I didn’t have a chance to walk to school with the other children. My grandmother would walk out to the gate until I got in the school building,” she said, laughing.

She and Brown are first cousins, although she said that because they both were only children, they considered themselves brother and sister.

Another memory Banks has is of her senior English teacher, Lula Mae Johnson Walton, who now lives in Little Rock.

“I remember going to the chalkboard and diagramming sentences,” Banks said, which she didn’t enjoy. All students were required to stand in front of the class and read, too.

“It was beautiful, though. Not only were they your teachers; you saw them on the weekend in your church, in the grocery store. It’s not like that now,” she said.

Walton, 90, hadn’t heard about the school’s designation.

“That’s an honor,” she said.

“There’s not very much I remember,” she said with a laugh, but she does remember Banks.

“Margarette was one of my favorites,” Walton said. “She loved to read a lot — read, read, read, read. She still does read quite a bit. We talk about three or four times a year.

Walton said she doesn’t think she was a tough teacher.

“I was a moderate teacher,” she said.

“It was a nice place to work,” Walton said. “My principal was Hymon King.”

Banks researched and compiled a history of the school, which was helpful to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program application for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

“I was writing a book — that’s why I collected all that information — and never got it written,” Banks said.

Banks said she is happy that the school was added to the list.

“It’s a beautiful building,” Banks said.

Banks and Brown credit Karen Hofford, assistant to Morrilton Mayor Stewart Nelson, as well as the mayor, with making it happen.

“The history of it is just amazing, and the people who attended the school,” Hofford said.

Hofford and Nelson got two surprises when they tried to repair damage to the former Morrilton Colored School: It wasn’t listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it didn’t actually belong to the city, as they thought.

Nelson said that about a year ago, the roof of the building was sagging. The structure houses the Child Development Center, a Head Start program, which pays the city $1 a year to use the building.

“When Karen was looking at it, she said, ‘This is a classic building. Why isn’t it on the national register?’ I give her 100 percent and full credit for getting it on the historical register,” Nelson said. “It’s a wonderful old building.”

Hofford said the roof repairs cost $42,500, paid for by Conway County, the state’s General Improvement Fund and the city.

Two weeks before submitting the National Register of Historic Places application for the school, Hofford said, they discovered that the South Conway County School District hadn’t deeded the entire property to the city.

Just the “back half” had been deeded to the city, which was probably an oversight, Nelson said.

The city acquired the entire property deed, and the application to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program for inclusion on the national register was made.

“I’m not from here, but I love the old buildings, and I love the history of these old buildings,” Hofford said. “[Getting it on the register] was just something that was the right thing to do. It was very significant to the history of the whole area. Students were bused here [from other counties],” she said. “It was just a significant building to the city.”

Students who attended the school were from Conway, Pope, Perry and Yell counties, including Havana, Danville, Dardanelle, Russellville, Atkins and Bigelow, according to the nomination application.

When the Morrilton Colored School opened in the 1930s, it originally housed all grades.

Because of the number of students being bused to the school, however, it was necessary to build a separate elementary school. In either 1948 or 1949, a frame elementary school — Sarah E. Clark Elementary School — was built at Childress and Rock streets. The new building’s cafeteria served students there and from the Morrilton Colored School.

Banks said Clark was her maternal grandmother’s sister.

“I am so entwined in the school’s history; it’s almost in my blood,” Banks said.

The Morrilton Colored School/L.W. Sullivan High School is in a residential area. It has fieldstone walls, and stucco was used in the front-facing gable, according to the application.

Ralph Wilcox, national register/survey coordinator for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program who wrote the application, stated that the school “has good integrity. The largest change to the building outside of the period of significance has been the replacement of the original windows.” On the exterior, just wheelchair ramps and aluminum siding have been added.

Inside, the building still has its historical character, Wilcox said.

“The fact that the building retains its original paneling, chair rails and transom windows really helps the interior to convey the feel of a 1930s school building. In addition, the fact that the ceilings have not been lowered also helps the school to convey its original design,” he wrote.

According to the application, the first public school for blacks in Morrilton was a two-room building at Clifton and St. Joseph streets.

The Rock Street property was purchased from Henry and Anna Lee in 1916. A four-room frame building was erected on the property. That building burned 16 years later, in 1932. Classes were held in various churches in the city until the building could be replaced.

“In 1934, under the guidance of Superintendent Victor L. Boren, Principal L.W. Sullivan, the Parent Teacher Association and community citizens, a six-room stone building and a one-room stone vocational-agriculture building were constructed with the aid of the Works Progress Administration,” according to the 1949 Tiger yearbook.

The application also states that the rock for the building’s construction was provided by Grant “Bo” Oliver, and members of the community dug out the stones and hauled them to the site. W.P. Brown, who Banks said was her uncle; J.B. Dorris; Will Shell; Bill Mitchell; Claude Pursley; Ollie Kindle; John Henry “Kiddo” Brewer; Ulysses Brown; and the Rev. T.L. Dorris dug and hauled 128 loads of rock in five days in 1934.

L.W. Sullivan served as principal of the school until his death in 1939. In 1946, the school was renamed L.W. Sullivan School in his memory, Banks said.

Banks graduated from L.W. Sullivan High School in 1953.

“I was shocked to my shoes that the name wasn’t on my diploma. It was Morrilton High School,” she said.

As noted in the application, “the school remained an important part of the African-American community until its closure on May 19, 1965. Due to the school’s importance to the African-American community and the educational history of Conway County, it is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.”

The school is listed under the name Morrilton Colored School — a reminder of a different era.

Brown said the significance of the former school is so people won’t forget.

“We were there,” he said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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