ST. FRANCISVILLE — The West Feliciana Parish School Board has taken steps to help an alumni association seek federal funds to begin rehabilitating the parish's first school offering high school-level educational opportunities to black students in the parish.
The John Dawson High School opened in 1951 and continued to serve black West Feliciana students until it was closed when schools were integrated in 1969.
The board voted Nov. 14 to declare three acres of the approximately 10-acre site as surplus to the school system's needs and to donate the land and the old building to the John Dawson Alumni Association and Foundation.
The organization will apply for a $200,000 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant under EPA's Brownfields Program. If the grant is approved, the alumni group will use the money to safely rid the Dawson campus of lead paint and asbestos.
The organization wants to eventually renovate the building for use as a community center, retired university mathematics professor Henry Hardy told the board.
In a presentation before the board voted, Hardy outlined the history of the school and early efforts to educate black students in the parish.
He said two white men, John Jones and C.H. Argue, recruited John Dawson to serve the parish's black children as an educator in 1890.
Dawson began working in several small schools, initially mainly serving elementary-age children, and became over time a revered figure in local educational circles, Hardy said.
Dawson died in 1950. When the school opened a year later, it was named for him, and two of his sons served as principals, Hardy said.
He said he is conducting historical research to help a budding young filmmaker create a documentary on the history of black education efforts in West Feliciana Parish.
"It will stress inclusion, and show where white folks and black folks worked together in this parish," Hardy said. "If it hadn't been for these two white men, there wouldn't have been a John Dawson in this parish."
In a similar vein, white landowner Henry Polk donated land south of St. Francisville in 1904 for a school for black students built by the Rosenwald Fund established by Sears and Roebuck Co. executive Julius Rosenwald, Hardy said.
The Barrow, Richardson and Noland families donated land for the Dawson school, he said.
The Dawson site, located on Old Highway 66, is surveyed as 12.16 acres, but only about 10 acres remain because Bayou Sara has encroached on the property.
The grant program requires the applicants to own the properties they wish to rid of environmental hazards, which required the board to transfer ownership of a portion of the land.
The act transferring the land will call for a donation of approximately three acres, but it will be amended at a later date when a detailed legal description of the new boundaries is complete, said Charles F. Hardie, an attorney advising the board.
State law requires the board and the alumni group to enter into a cooperative endeavor agreement spelling out the public benefits of the land transfer, and Hardie said a formal agreement also will come later.
An existing gravel lane on the site will continue to give school personnel access to the remainder of the property, Superintendent Hollis Milton said.