One of my personal landmarks on Hwy. 98, just before you get to the Lucedale exit(s), is the Bexley School, a small frame building standing off on a red-dirt hill on the north side of the highway. At first glance, it might seem that this school might be the next entry in my Abandoned Mississippi series because there’s not much out this way. But I’ve been traveling Hwy 98 for over a decade now, and it’s clear that this place is still in use and cared for, I think by an alumni or community group.
The sign on the front of the building reads “Bexley School, 1913-1959″ meaning that the school was founded in 1913 and ceased being a school in 1959. This would make it one of the very early consolidated schools in the state, as consolidation did not come into being until a law passed in 1910 allowed two or more rural schools to become one larger entity. Consolidation gave country children more opportunities for high school education, science classes, vocational tracks, etc., and at that time it was seen as a progressive educational policy (today, it seems only designed to save money and often results in the death of small communities).
I’m not sure that this building dates to 1913–it looks a few years later, maybe late 1910s or early 1920s to me. Plus, an interesting and helpful internet reference on the U.S. GenWeb Archives indicates there was only one teacher (L. N. Ball) at Bexley School in 1914, while this building has two classrooms and an auditorium space. So maybe it was consolidated later in the decade, but even if the building was built in the early 1920s, it’s old for a rural Mississippi school building.
Bexley’s abandonment as a school also probably came about from consolidation in the late 1950s, when all counties were required to reorganize their schools with the aim of equalizing white and black schools. Many new consolidated schools were built at this time, and driving through most any town in the state will show the results–usually two large 1950s schools, one now a middle school and the other a high school. Or one a Head Start and the other the main K-12 school for the town.
Bexley also has one other building associated with the school, a small cafeteria that when you look closely has a little plaque that ties it to yet another big movement in our state’s history, this one during the Depression. The cafeteria was built by the National Youth Administration, a Depression-era government program designed to help teach young people vocational skills and also to keep them out of the larger workforce. School cafeterias were a fairly new phenomenon in the 1930s–they came about because of general concern about proper nutrition in students, and also because with greater consolidation, fewer students lived close enough to their homes to walk home for lunch.
Bexley School hasn’t been listed on the National Register–maybe because the owners have never pursued it. The windows have been replaced, the roof recently was changed to a modern metal roof from the original (or early) asbestos cement shingles that had kind of a diamond pattern. But the place still tells a story, and it’s a story that is increasingly hard to tell because so many of these early consolidated schools have been lost either to fire or demolition or just rotting into the ground.
Seeing it still standing every time I pass makes me happy, shows me that there are people out there who still love this place enough to invest their time and energy and money into extending its life and usefulness for this rural community. Next time you’re traveling toward Mobile, keep an eye out for this little landmark.