Poplar Hill School

Poplar Hill School of Fayette,                                           Jefferson County, Mississippi                                      Copyright Protected © 2010 

Poplar Hill School was founded in about 1880 by the members of  the community of Poplar Hill (a former plantation consisting of about 500-700 acres) and members of the  Poplar Hill African Methodist Episcopal Church (church was founded in about 1868).  In the early years classes were held inside the church until it was determined that a separate facility was needed. In about 1890 a school was built however it burned and the current 2 room building was constructed.  A two room schoolhouse was planned and built in about 1923 with the locally available materials and the labor force from the members of the Poplar Hill community and church. 

About 4.5 miles from the county seat of Fayette, Mississippi sits the Poplar Hill School a one-story wood frame building with a side-gable metal roof.  The school which is approximately 897 square feet held 1st through 8th grade classes.  The room divided in two by a removable wall 1st through 4th grade on one side and 5th through 8th on the other.  Children recalled having to cut and bring in the wood for the wood burning stove up until the 1950’s.   Though no longer there, vivid memories still exist about the outhouse for both boys and girls were recalled, its location was in the rear of the building.

Mississippi began public education in 1821 by an act of the Mississippi Legislature.  This legislative act also established a “Literacy Fund” to provide school tuition for indigent children. Under this legislation education was only for those of the White population.  African American children were not given the opportunity to receive a public education until after the Civil War.  The Mississippi Constitution of 1868 was the first legislation which provided free public education of all children regardless of race.  Article VIII, Sections 1-9 established “a uniform system of free public schools, by taxation or otherwise, for all children between the ages of five and twenty-one years…”  In 1870 legislation was passed to create county school districts under the supervision of an elected state Superintendent of Education who then appointed local county superintendents.

Revenue raised by the sale or lease of 16th Section lands was the funding source for the county schools.  One more additional source of school funding that existed was a poll tax of two dollars per person.  It was levied for the specific use of public education.   With white control of predominantly black counties, much of the monies earmarked for the African American schools were given to the white schools.   This created a “double tax” for those in the African American community first paying the poll tax and then having to raise additional monies to support their schools. The land on which Poplar Hill School was built is 16th Section Land. 

In 1868, Medora Dubs Scott Butler bequeathed the land where Poplar Hill Church and School are located to the African Church. In her last will and testament Mrs. Butler speaks of the gift given to the African church stating, “It is my wish that the four acres of land given to the African Church by me shall belong to them as long as the same is used for the purpose of a church site.” As with many rural communities during this time period, churches took on the responsibility of the education of the children within the local community.  Poplar Hill African Methodist Episcopal Church established the school in about 1877 with the classes held in the church building. Between 1894 and 1895 the church and local Poplar Hill Community built a school for the children of Poplar Hill Plantation and the surrounding area.   It is thought that the first school was destroyed by fire and a new one built in 1923.

In 1877, P. K. Whitney was appointed Superintendent of Education of Jefferson County.  Suggestions made by P. K. Whitney at the meeting of the Board of Supervisors in January 1878 were as follows:

"The opening of 22 white and 26 colored schools…  The term be set at five months with daily attendance be fixed at 8 pupils for white and 24 for colored schools…”  , Section 207:

“Separate schools shall be maintained for children of the white and colored races.”  

Poplar Hill School was always an African American public school; initially (about 1880 to 1895) the students were taught in the Poplar Hill African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

The first teacher that we are able to document that taught at Poplar Hill was Elvira Ellis Jackson (1857-1925).  Her Grade of License was 2, the P. O. Address: Fayette, License Number #24, and the Expiration Date: April 1898. In the “Record of Monthly and Term Report of Public Schools Scholastic year 1896 to 1897” (Transcribed by: Ann Brown, Fayette, MS) schools were listed by race first then alphabetically by name of school.  Poplar Hill is shown in this report as follows:

Poplar Hill School District T9N R1E,

Location: Harper’s place, House built of plank,

Trustees: Gibson Starks, J. R. Thomas, and

Scott Hamilton,

P. O. of Secretary: Fayette,

Teacher: E. E. Jackson,

School opened: 02 Nov 1896, School closed: 05 Mar 1897,

Children Enumeration: M – 112, F – 122, Total: 234

Enrolled: M – 34, F – 44, Total: 78

   Avg. Attend: M – 21, F – 25, Total: 46.

Children Enumeration: M – 112, F – 122, Total: 234

Enrolled: M – 34, F – 44, Total: 78

Avg. Attend: M – 21, F – 25, Total: 46.


School Board Minutes show the Negro Schools in alphabetical order.  Notation that the “Winter School is to start the first Monday in November 1897.  The summer starts 1st Monday in May 1897.  J. Rives Wade, Ex-Officio President and Secretary.”

Elvira Ellis Jackson was a former slave. She is described by her granddaughter as “…One of the first Negro Educators of South Mississippi, she was loved, respected, and honored by the entire Poplar Hill Community.” 

Included in the “Record of Monthly and Term Report of Public Schools Scholastic year 1896 to 1897” is a list of teachers attending the summer training institute. Mrs. Elvira Jackson and her daughter Henrietta were listed as having attended the teacher training institute.  Established by Superintendent Whitfield in 1904, these training sessions/institutes were given during the summer months.  According to a report titled Giving A Voice to a Shared Past: Public Education and (De)segregation in Mississippi, 1868-2000 -- Part II - Sustaining the Infrastructure of Public Education: 1900-1953

In spite of the prevailing attitudes of many in state government toward free black public schools, positive reforms were enacted which contributed to the elevation of standards for both white and black students.  Governor Vardaman’s State Superintendent of Public Education, Henry L. Whitfield, who later served as governor from 1923-1927, identified teacher training as   a major concern in the state.  Although Governor Vardaman closed the only teacher training college for black teachers in 1904, Superintendent Whitfield helped to offset the effect by opening teacher training institutes across the state which were conducted during the summer months.  This made it possible for more teachers, black and white, to receive training on the high school and college level. 

In 1917, Julius Rosenwald created the Rosenwald Rural School Building Program.  This program was designed to improve the quality of public education and improve school facilities for African American children.  By 1928, one in every five rural schools for African American students in the South was a Rosenwald school.   Poplar Hill School was one of the selected schools to participate in this program.   The Fisk University Rosenwald Fund Card File Database establishes that Poplar Hill was identified to receive a grant of $700 from the fund in 1923-24.  In addition to the $700 from the Rosenwald fund, there were contributions from Negroes: $733.00, Whites: $325.00, and the Public: $215.00 for a total budget of $1,973. 

However, in the 1934 “Report of Rosenwald Schools”  written by the school superintendents for each county reporting on the progress at each school, the entry for the Poplar Hill School states “There were no Rosenwald funds paid on this building.”  Additionally, it was noted that in 1929 Mr. Bura Hilbun, State Supervisor of Rural Negro Schools, embezzled not only the money earmarked for Poplar Hill but the money of a number of the rural Negro schools in Mississippi. Mr. Hilbun was sentenced to 5 years in the penitentiary, by Justice W. D. Anderson of Hinds County, and served 2.5 years. As tragic as this embezzlement was to the everyday operations of Poplar Hill School, it was not unusual.  Often funds earmarked for African American schools were misappropriated and used for white schools. Regardless of the funding source, the current building was built at approximately that time.

State and local records identify many of the teachers who taught at Poplar Hill School over the years. They include Mrs. Elvira Ellis Jackson, who began teaching in the church building in 1877 at the existing school building from about 1923-1924. Other teachers include:

Ms. Henrietta Jackson (1896-1940)   Ms. Henrietta Jackson Smith (1937–1940),

Mrs. Mattie Milton (1937-1940)          Ms. Lethie Green (early 1940s)

Ms. Bessie Lyas Kates (1941–1945)  Ms. Virginia Roanne Thomas (1942-1946)

Ms. Lula Bell Jackson (1942–1943) (1945–1946) Ms. Alma Page (1944–1946)

Ms. Ruth Hall (1944 – 1946)               Mrs. Sarah Hall Jackson (1948 – 1949)

Ms. Helen Riley (c.1950)                     Ms. Thelma Jackson (c.1950)

Ms. Mildred Turner (c.1953)                Ms. Sadie Fells (c.1953)

Ms. Hattie Belle Haley (c. 1950’s)       Ms. Naomi Hill


In an interview with Sarah Hall Jackson, a former teacher of Poplar Hill School, she mentioned that when she arrived in 1948 at the school there were no black boards and very few school supplies were available most of the time.  Books for the students in the rural black schools were not provided until the 6th grade.  African American students had to pay to use the used text books which came from the white schools in the area.  Several students who attended Poplar Hill have said that the books they received were damaged but the damage was not noted at the time of payment. Once the book was returned to the school a fee was assessed for the damage.  In another interview with a former teacher of Poplar Hill School she described the subjects that were taught as: citizenship, mathematics, English, literature, history, and science.

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