The life and contributions of Annie E. Colbert, for whom Colbert Elementary in Dayton is named, were remembered Saturday, April 24, at the unveiling of an official state marker sponsored by the Liberty County Historical Commission. Colbert is believed to have been the first black teacher in Dayton.
The historical marker dedication was pending for several years, according to LCHC Chairman Linda Jamison.
“We started gathering the information and doing research in 2017 for this marker. It takes approximately two years to process through the State Historical Commission to get approval. Our Commission approved sponsoring this marker, funding this marker, and then we started the marker application process, which includes the research and acquired documentation and narrative that goes to the state,” Jamison told the group of 55 people who gathered for the dedication ceremony on Saturday.
At the time that the Texas Historical Commission approved the marker request, the foundry that made the metal castings for the markers went out of business, so there were more delays until a foundry in Indiana was contracted for the historical markers.
“That delayed us for another year. Then we were in the queue with all those others. By the time we received delivery of the marker, what happened? COVID. We have had this marker in our warehouse for quite some time until we could get through this pandemic and had a time when we could gather and be safe. You all were on the first of the list,” said Jamison, speaking to members of the Colbert-Rosenwald Corporation and a Colbert Tigers alumni group.
In a history of Colbert-Rosenwald School that was compiled by Jamison for the application process for the marker, which was read during the ceremony by James Grays, president of the Colbert-Rosenwald Corporation, Jamison wrote, “By 1883, Liberty County maintained 53 schools, including 19 African-American schools. 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.”
Colbert, a native of Houston, arrived in the Dayton area in the 1890s and taught students in a one-room, 1,200 square-foot building located near Luke and Prater streets. Colbert continued teaching black students in the Dayton area until 1918, around the same time that the school was relocated to a site near the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. When that school burned to the ground in 1927, Dayton ISD and the community partnered with the Rosenwald School Building Program to construct a new school for the black community. The Rosenwald School in Dayton was dedicated as the Annie E. Colbert-Rosenwald School in 1934.
Rosenwald Schools were built all across the South between 1917 and 1932 through an endowment from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. Today, only 10-12 percent of the 5,357 Rosenwald Schools remain, including the one in Dayton.
The Rosenwald Schools were the inspiration of Booker T. Washington, the black president of Tuskegee Institute, and Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish businessman and philanthropist. Rosenwald was the president of Sears and Roebuck, who donated a sizeable fortune to the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which was aimed at advancing the education of blacks during the early 20th Century.
While most of the Rosenwald Schools were wood-framed buildings, the one in Dayton is built with bricks, which may have contributed to its longevity. Former Dayton ISD Superintendent Greg Hayman, who was on hand for Saturday’s historical marker unveiling, is credited with saving the Dayton Rosenwald School from the wrecking ball.
Dr. Jessica Johnson, the current superintendent, explained that Hayman was very instrumental in the preservation of this important piece of Dayton’s history. By 2009, the restoration of the Rosenwald School was complete.
“Booker T. Washington once wrote, ‘I think I have learned the best way to lift one’s self up is to help someone else.’ You see, it was very clear that Mr. Washington knew the true essence and value of what it is to be a teacher, very much, like Ms. Annie Colbert and other educators who have passed through these doors. Even today, some of our very best teachers are on this campus,” Johnson said.
Today’s teachers, like Annie E. Colbert, are passionate about nurturing the student as a whole, Johnson said.
“I know how important that is. When I was in fifth grade, I was part of the very first group of kiddos who integrated and went to Colbert School. These are among my favorite years in school. I spent two years on this campus full of devoted, passionate teachers who made every student feel special,” she said.
Johnson believes the preservation of the campus’s history will be important for generations to come.
“I once read, ‘We are all living history.’ It’s hard to say what will be important in the future. One thing is certain: if we throw it away, it’s gone,” she said.
Today, Annie E. Colbert-Rosenwald School stands behind Colbert Elementary, located at 231 S. Colbert Street. It serves as a museum for the rich histories of both Colbert Elementary and the Rosenwald School. The museum is open on Saturdays only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
For more information regarding the museum, call 936-336-0980.
To read more on the history of Annie Colbert and Rosenwald School, go online to https://bluebonnetnews.com/2021/04/16/liberty-county-historical-commission-to-dedicate-state-marker-honoring-daytons-first-black-teacher/.