Marian A. Owens Hickman
Labor Day 1948 had finally arrived and it would be a milestone in my young life. Dressed in a green and white gingham dress and a bow in my hair, I was going to school at last! (My birthday is in January so I had missed the cutoff date the year before.) My school was Bowman's Valley, a two-room schoolhouse which the colored children in Bullitt County Ky. attended. Since it was a holiday, we only stayed for half a day but I loved every minute of it.
I had not been to any school before so this school would shape my concept of school for the next five years. Ms. Mattie Owens was my teacher and also my aunt. However, at school she was Ms. Owens to me and everyone else. The school had two rooms but Ms. Owens was the only teacher so all eight grades were taught in the same room. This did not seem to be problem. The younger students sat in those wood and iron double desks made for two near the front of the room and the older ones had single desks that were usually on either side of the room. This seemed to work because, the best I can remember, the enrollment was probably no more than 15 to 17 in the entire school.
Getting down to routines was left for the rest of the week. The students came from Deatsville, Lebanon Junction, Mount Washington and Shepherdsville, Ky. Since the students were transported from such a large area everyone did not arrive at the same time. The Mount Washington and Shepherdsville group arrived last, therefore instruction did not begin until they got there. Once we were all there the day would start with the pledge to the flag and a prayer service. A Bible verse would be read and hymn sung from some old tattered yellow songbooks. The most read verse was the 23rd Psalm. One of my favorite hymns included the words "I'm gonna lay down my burdens down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside, 'Ain't gonna study war no more..." This was a favorite in part because one boy would keep on singing after the rest had moved on. I thought that it was funny and I'm sure I wasn't the only one amused but we knew better than to laugh. The day progressed on with the usual lessons. At reading the students were required to stand and read. Math usually consisted of work on the blackboard and flash cards. Of course there was recess.
Recess #1 was around 10 o'clock and was more of a rest room and water break. This sounds simple, but not so. The restrooms were outhouses at the back of the property. Not too long a trip in good weather, but winter meant getting dressed in heavy coats and hats and praying you got there before it was too late. The water was, in my opinion, horrible! It had been pumped from sulfur well out in the front of the school. It had to be disinfected with eyedroppers full of bleach. We had our own cups and over time they would turn brown from mineral deposits. To this day water in not my favorite drink.
Lunch was whatever you brought from home. If you had a thermos with your lunch box you would have something to drink, Otherwise, it was back to the water bucket. We were allowed to go out and play in front of the school until everyone finished eating. In the afternoon, the rest of the subjects like geography, history and handwriting were covered depending on your grade level. These were completed gladly in anticipation of the afternoon recess - recess #2. This was the real one and we would get to go across the road to the playground. Well, our playground was actually a very large field. The big kids would usually play ball at one end and the rest could jump rope or play circle games like "Cat and Mouse" or "Ring around the Roses." If it were Fall we would jump in the leaves or walk around and collect them. I still have a scar on my right hand that occurred when we were playing in the leaves and a boy's thumbnail went through the top of my hand. You might say I was scarred for life. Also one time we constructed our own seesaw in a tree. Again, I got bounced off, hit my head and believed I actually saw stars. Recess was not my best subject!
During the winter the routine would change slightly. Since the classroom was heated with a large black wood-burning stove, the fire had to be made everyday. Usually the group from Deatsville arrived first so some of the older boys would help get the fire started. When it was really cold we were allowed to begin class with our coats on until the room warmed up. Recess had to take place inside so we would play hide the eraser or some would play Old Maid cards or some other games that Ms. Owens had available in case of bad weather.
Activities did not change much from year to year. The older students were able to have a 4-H club that met during school time. Sewing and cooking were popular. One year the club cooked breakfast for the adult leaders. This was a big deal. I also remember making a nine-patch quilt block in the sewing class. The pink and white blocks were put together and I think were used for some sort of a fundraiser. Another change occurred when, I believe, I was in the fourth grade. The enrollment increased and we were allowed to get a second teacher and the other room was used. Ms Martina came from another county and was there for about a year. After that Ms. Frances Barbour from the Mt. Washington area was hired. I think she stayed for more than a year but I'm not sure.
Of course the coming of Christmas was always exciting and we eagerly waited for our holiday break. We would have a Christmas party. Ms. Owens gave everyone the same gift. It was a brown paper sack with apples, oranges and some hard Christmas candy. This was special because, if I was careful, I had candy to last for most of the break. We were usually out for about two weeks but if we were lucky and a big snow came during the holiday we didn't know when we would be back!
There was another event that to my memory happened at least once a year or maybe twice. The school superintendent would visit and bring a bushel of apples. We were on our best behavior, as we were coached to be, and of course as children glad to get something that we could eat. In the Spring we would have an Easter egg hunt. The dyed eggs were hidden on the playground across the road. There was always a duck egg or a goose egg and whoever got that one won a prize. The last day of school was also a memorial occasion. Again it centered on play and food. One year we each got a whole pint of ice cream. It was heaven to try and eat it before it melted.
The Ending of an Era
I did not have any idea that the end of my 6th year at Bowman's Valley would be my last. It was a very traumatic experience to hear my parents tell me that I would not be going back to Bowman's valley but to a school in my hometown of Lebanon Junction. I knew this school existed but was not old enough to question why I did not already go there. In my mind this was just one more place that colored people didn't go to. My reality of school was getting up early to ride about 15 miles to a small wooden schoolhouse without indoor plumbing and with horrible water. This other school was in walking distance to my house and was made brick. It also had indoor plumbing and central heat. It had many classrooms and a cafeteria. As an adult I can see why my parents wanted me to go there. They, like any parent, wanted the best environment available for their children. However, for me it meant leaving friends and the security of the familiar.
Years later I would become more aware of the inequalities of education for children of color. But at that time we were children not fully understanding the political and social turmoil of segregation. We were, unknowingly, characters in an ongoing drama. It would decades before the realization that the last classes at Bowman's Valley were the end of an era in Bullitt County, and part of the unprecedented social change in the nation.
As a retired educator, I can say that, despite the hardships, I received a sound foundation in my early education. Respect, discipline, and hard work are all parts of a balanced education. These components were expected of the students and modeled by the teachers. They allowed the students to move into the mainstream and take their place as productive citizens.
Photo taken in 2007.
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