The Liberty County Historical Commission on Saturday, April 24, will dedicate a State Historical Marker honoring Annie Colbert, first African American teacher in Dayton, and the Rosenwald School, which educated many area students and now serves as a museum on the Colbert School campus in Dayton. The dedication will be held at 10 a.m. in front of the Colbert School, 231 Colbert St., Dayton, and the public is encouraged to attend this important occasion.
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands was formed after the Civil War ended in 1865 to organize schools for the black citizens and assist with other legal issues such as voting and labor contracts. The state had organized a common school system by 1871 with the county judge acting as county school superintendent but progress was slow.
By 1883, Liberty County maintained 34 schools for 357 white students and 19 schools for 396 black students. The average school term was three months for ages 8-14. The only early black school serving the town of Dayton was Greenville located near the settlements of Stilson and Fouts. The black schools were generally located on the outskirts of a town to serve both the city population and the adjacent rural area.
Dayton had a large enough population in 1907 to form an independent school district, independent of the county common school system and by July 20 of that year had voted to create the district. This included limited school opportunities for the black students. Thus, began black education in Dayton, Texas, and the history of Annie Colbert School which was valued most by those who benefitted from this institution.
By 1910 the small district in Dayton employed a total of five teachers, including Annie Colbert, for whom the school was later named. Annie Fairchild Colbert was born in Houston, February 5, 1866 to parents, Robert E. Fairchild and Amanda McNair Fairchild. Annie Colbert attended public school in Houston, Texas, then Tillotson Institute in Austin.
According to Mrs. Colbert, before her death in 1961, when she began teaching in Houston, there were 19 black teachers, and she was assigned to Gregory school. She later married Tony Colbert, a railroad porter. Due to school policy, she was forbidden to teach school in Houston, so she moved to Dayton, Texas, in nearby Liberty County. Mrs. Colbert was hired by the school board.
It is believed from the scant records available, that Annie Colbert was the first black teacher in Dayton. She arrived in the 1890s from Houston to teach in a one-room school, a 1,200-square foot wooden building with a stage, located near Luke and Prater Streets and was known for her strictness and demanding performance from students.
Mrs. Colbert planted the seeds of valuing a good education and in so doing, gained the respect of her students and reverence in the community. She continued to teach black students in Dayton until approximately 1918. The black population continued to increase with the arrival of a sawmill, a box factory and the migration of Creoles from Louisiana, more teachers were hired, and a new black school was constructed on Beauty Street.
It is not known if the old school was moved or a new building was built in 1918 when the school was relocated to a site near the African Methodist Episcopal Church on the Cleveland Road, now F.M. Highway 321. The three-room frame building had a stage and folding doors to create auditorium space for general assemblies. The enrollment was approximately 100, but regular attendance was about 60. Three one-room schools were opened for black children in the outlying communities of Eastgate, Five Mile Settlement, and Stilson to accommodate the children of sharecroppers.
By 1927, the nearby common schools, consolidated with Dayton ISD with a total student body of 953. During this year, the school district constructed a new four-room brick building known as the Dayton Colored School with the old wooden building becoming the home economics and National Negro Farmers of America shop facilities. This facility served black students until it burned around 1929.
Construction of a new school began in Dayton south of Highway 90 in what is commonly known as “Low Woods” in 1929. The new School housed all grades and was described as a four-room brick structure in 1933 when it was ready for occupancy. This new black school was financed by contributions from the school district, community and a grant from the Rosenwald School Building Program. The Rosenwald School Building Program, 1913-1932 funded the construction of schools that were to serve as models of rural school design. Julius Rosenwald, President of Sears & Roebuck Company, believed that America could not prosper if any large segment of its people were left behind and was dedicated to ensuring black education.
During the early years of the Fund, Rosenwald contributed monies from his personal holdings. Once he contributed twenty thousand shares of Sears, Roebuck and Company stock to the Fund, a gift that was then worth approximately twenty million dollars. As the demand for these schools grew, Rosenwald consolidated his financial contributions and formed the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1917.
Although African-Americans contributed a larger portion of the total cost of construction, equipment and grounds, the buildings became universally known as “Rosenwald Schools.” The Annie Colbert-Rosenwald school was not dedicated until the school year 1934-1935 when pioneer black teacher, Annie Colbert returned to Dayton to attend the dedication of the new school which was named for her as a result of petitioning by the black community.
While the school was classified as a “high school,” it had only 10 grades, which ultimately meant it was unaccredited. Accreditation meant the graduates could go to college without taking an examination. In 1936, the classes at Stilson and Eastgate were moved to the Colbert campus. The staff was now approaching nine teachers, a janitor and a cook. That same year, an eleventh grade and additional courses were added, accreditation was finally granted. With the addition of the twelfth grade a few years later, Colbert became a bona fide high school. The school’s enrollment had grown significantly, and the staff continued to increase through World War II, and by the end of the war, Colbert’s enrollment was approaching 300.
With the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown Vs. Board of Education regarding “separate but equal” schools, additional classrooms, football field, gymnasium, and other improvements were made to satisfy the law. Ultimately, “separate but equal” facilities were ruled unconstitutional, and Dayton’s schools were integrated in the late 1960’s.
Those who knew Annie Colbert loved, respected and were grateful for her gift of an education to them. Those who attended Colbert High School are devoted to and appreciative of the woman and her successors who had the foresight, courage, energy, faith and willingness to instill in them the desire for self-improvement. Annie Fairchild Colbert spent many years educating black students in Liberty and Harris counties, in Washington, D.C. and Virginia. She died at age 95 on June 10, 1961, in Houston, Texas and left a legacy of black education to thousands of students.
The history of black education and the evolution of the school system in the rural community of Dayton, Texas, exemplifies the perseverance of the black community from Emancipation to Integration in the South. It also exemplifies how one or two persons can make such a huge impact in the lives of many. First, the dedication of Annie Fairchild Colbert, the first black teacher in the community and philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, who believed in the value of educating every person, regardless of ethnicity and further that all children deserved a proper building in which to learn. The Annie Colbert – Rosenwald School was restored and is now a museum on a newer, much larger campus in Dayton where all can go and enjoy this remarkable history.
COMPILED BY LINDA M. JAMISON, COUNTY CHAIR – LIBERTY COUNTY HISTORICAL COMMISSION