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The historic schoolhouse hidden on Southern Miss’ campus

November 30, 2018

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — Hidden in the center courtyard of Owings-McQuagge Hall on the Southern Miss campus is a piece of Mississippi history many people may not know exists. It’s Roberts Schoolhouse — a one-room, wood-frame schoolhouse from the late 1800s that was moved to the University of Southern Mississippi in 1981.

“Most people don’t know it’s there, including many faculty, staff and students,” said Trenton Gould, interim dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences, which is housed in the hall.

Gould, himself, didn’t know of the schoolhouse until he took up residence in Owings-McQuagge, and he’d been on campus since 2003.

The schoolhouse was established in the Arena community of northeast Jackson County by Richard Roberts in 1899. Not much is known about Roberts, but his schoolhouse prospered until 1921, serving male and female students in grades 1-12.

It was eventually moved to Southern Miss, piece by piece, board by board, at a cost of $10,000 — an extraordinary expense, since the schoolhouse cost only $79 to build.

M.M. Roberts, of Southern Miss stadium fame and of the Roberts family, provided the support to move the schoolhouse.

It now serves as a tangible learning experience for Southern Miss education students and for various community groups who occasionally tour it.

Gene Tibbett is one of the many students exposed to the schoolhouse as part of their professional development during their junior year.

“For me, walking into Roberts Schoolhouse was a visceral experience that I will not soon forget,” he said in an email. “Standing inside its cramped, austere environs and feeling the creak of ancient wooden floorboards evoked images of chalk dust, sweat-covered schoolchildren and tough-as-nails educators who chose to learn and spread knowledge despite the unforgiving world they lived in.”

College and university campuses are no strangers to one-room schoolhouses. There are 34 known to be on campuses across the United States. Roberts Schoolhouse appears to be the only one on a Mississippi campus.

Ironically, a college campus was probably foreign to the teacher at Roberts Schoolhouse.

“The teacher had to have an eighth-grade education,” said Debbie Stoulig, assistant to the dean at the College of Education and Human Sciences. “The only qualification was for the teacher to go to the courthouse and read a paragraph saying she could make the kids mind.”

The teacher did have to observe a strict dress code.

“Clothing had to cover everything but the hands and face,” Stoulig said. “High-necked clothing was the rule.”

There were other restrictions, too.

“The teacher had to be single, couldn’t ride in an automobile unless with her father or brother, couldn’t be out after dark and often stayed at the house of one of her students’ families,” Stoulig said.

If a female teacher married, she had to quit her job, because then her most important task became taking care of the household for her husband.

School hours were from 10-2 everyday, to make sure the students had time to perform morning and evening chores. Tasks such as milking the cow, feeding the chickens and pigs, gathering eggs, carrying in wood and bringing in water were common.

A typical day started out with girls lining up on the left and boys on the right.

A prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance would be recited.

The lines and their configuration were important, because they dictated which side of the schoolyard the boys and girls would relieve themselves. An old Sears Roebuck catalog was kept by the door — its pages used in lieu of toilet paper.

In most one-room schoolhouses, the school year was divided into two, six-month terms. Winter term could be difficult, if temperatures dropped, with cold winter air blowing through the cracks in the building. The only warm air in the room would be at the center, near the pot-bellied stove. Pupils seated farthest from the stove would freeze, while those closer would roast.

Heavy wool socks, designed to keep feet warm, caused much shuffling under the desks, as the wool tended to make toes itch.

At Roberts Schoolhouse, children only attended for six months of the year, with their teacher moving on to another school for the other months.

Students learned reading, writing and arithmetic, often sitting at a recitation bench at the front of the room to give their lessons. Tables, instead of desks, were the norm, with the youngest children sitting closest to the front.

Roberts Schoolhouse finally closed when one-room schoolhouses in Mississippi were consolidated into larger schools.

Gould said the history of the schoolhouse is important for his students, who can apply their knowledge of the time to encourage them in what they’re doing today.

“To understand where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been — what teaching looked like, how it was done,” he said. “Back then, teaching tools were simple — often just a chalkboard and chalk or a physical object from their setting.

“Now, technology allows for a diversified approach to teaching.

“But learning was taking place then and learning is taking place now.”

Tibbett said he often thinks of what hasn’t changed since Roberts Schoolhouse was in operation — the scarcity of education funding, lack of technology and tools for some schools and teachers leaving the profession.

“This is a sobering thought, but it is one that gives me purpose as an educator and a lover of Mississippi,” he said. “I hope that visitors of Roberts Schoolhouse come to feel the same way that I do.

“I hope they choose to make a commitment to the future of Mississippi like Richard Roberts and those early teachers and students did way back in 1899.”

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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