One of the problems with Preservation in Mississippi‘s lack of News Roundups in 2019 is that important stories have not been disseminated, even when they have involved the potential demolition of a historic school building. And one only needs to go through the site’s archives for a short time to realize that every single author on the site loves historic school buildings.
In this case, the school in question is Itawamba County’s Banner School. There is not much information available about Banner School’s history. The Facebook group Banner Elementary School Graduates appears to be the only online source available, and while I am sure a local historian has researched and written a history of the county and its educational system, my library is lacking in Itawamba County history books.
Banner School was a consolidated school. It originated with Evening Shade School, a pre-consolidation school housed in a one-room, wood-frame building on Vinson Road. Banner School opened in 1929, with the school building’s construction likely contemporaneous with its opening. The school illustrates the dramatic changes in school facilities brought by consolidation. Instead of a one-room, wood-frame building, Banner School had seven classrooms plus a lunchroom, auditorium, and office, all arranged in an H-plan. The photographs I have seen of the building do not conclusively show whether the building is constructed solely of brick or whether it is of frame construction with brick veneer (my guess would be the latter), and while I drove past the school several times while traveling on Mississippi Highway 23 when I attended Mississippi State, I never had the time to stop, examine, and photograph it. Grades 1-8 attended, which means that one of the seven classrooms must have been home to a combined class of two grades. All eight grades of students were white. Banner School was open for just shy of thirty years; its last school year was 1958, with it closing due to the same reason it opened: school consolidation.
In the four decades between the time it closed and when an MDAH survey was conducted in 2000, the school building went from an H-plan to somewhat of a capital I-plan as both rear classroom wings were lopped off. Windows on the side façades were also bricked up. These changes are likely what has prevented the building from being designated as a Mississippi Landmark, such as Itawamba County’s other remaining historic school buildings: Fulton Grammar School, Carolina Consolidated School II, and Oakland School.
In February of this year, the Itawamba County School District deeded the property and building to the Itawamba County Board of Supervisors for the purpose of the county demolishing it to build the Banner/Bounds Fire Department a new fire station adjacent to the old station (or to expand and repair the old station, both were plans were mentioned by the Board). The school was cited as having been vacant for an unspecified length of time, though before its abandonment, it served as a community center for decades after its use as a school ceased. The Board of Supervisors argued that the building, though appearing in “decent condition” on the exterior, has “an interior that is slowly collapsing.” Another stated reason for the building’s demolition was to fix drainage issues affecting the old Banner/Bounds fire station, which is affected in heavy rains by water flowing “under the schoolhouse and into the fire department.”
By March 13, the Board of Supervisors advertised for sealed bids on the purchase of Banner Schoolhouse and its contents, with the winner having 30 days to demolish and/or salvage the building. Citing the liability of allowing members of the public into a vacant, “falling in” building, members of the public were not allowed to remove benches or any other items pre-demolition. At the time, the Board was already running into problems with their demolition plan, as one supervisor who reached out to his “contacts about tearing the building down” stated, “People I’ve asked about tearing it down don’t want to fool with it.”
Two months later, on May 15, the Board’s plans foundered due to a pair of snags. The first was that no demolition bids were received. The second is that, thanks to Antiquities Law of Mississippi, as a publicly-owned property, Banner School is under the purview of the MDAH, which would have to approve the demolition. Instead, the Board chose to “dodge a good deal of paperwork” by doing nothing with the building.
Lest one think that the Banner/Bounds Fire Department comes out as a loser in all of this, the Board of Supervisors decided to build the new fire station elsewhere on the property with a supervisor stating, “We’re going to move the whole fire department. There’s plenty of land back there.” Of course, there always seems to be plenty of land and other options once the knee-jerk action of demolition is thwarted.
One should not think that Banner School is saved. The building is still vacant and whether the interior is collapsing or not, buildings which are vacant and unmaintained eventually deteriorate to the point that it becomes a hard-sell to get them restored. When that hard-sell is accomplished, restoration comes at a far greater expense than if they had been maintained in the first place. Whether Banner School can be restored is a question I do not know the answer to. Whether Banner School will be restored is another question. I hope the answer to both of those questions is yes. What I do know is that the building still stands and as long as that is the case, there is always hope that it can and will be restored.
The Itawamba County Times articles, “Supervisors deeded Banner Schoolhouse, will tear it down,” “Our Opinion: Sometimes the best choice is to let go,” “Supervisors deny requests for mementos from Banner Schoolhouse,” and “Banner Schoolhouse to remain standing” chronicle the school’s recent near-death experience.