by Larry E. West
All that remains on the land which housed a school and church is the well that students used while attending school at Gum Creek. For the remaining students that are alive today, memories of attending school brings back colorful thoughts. As seen through the eyes of Verna Mae Dunnington-West, born June 24, 1925, in Henderson County, to her parents, Alex and Pinkie Dunnington, beginning her school career was an exciting time. Verna's mother, Pinkie, served the community as a midwife around the mid nineteen-twenties. An interesting note is that Pinkie's father, C. S. Sharp, Sr. had been a trustee of Gum Creek School, and her grandson, Rev. Larry E. West, would become a trustee of Athens Independent School District. Rev. West's own children live in close proximity to where Gum Creek School had been (five generations). As for Verna, at the tender age of five, she began attending school in October 1930. Attending school with older relatives at the time was more like being taken to the day care. However, Mrs. Ruby Morgan, the teacher at that time, chose to take advantage of her presence and teach her along with the older students*1.
Mrs. Dunnington-West tells of the long walks to school estimating the distance at a mile or more. Her Uncles, C. S. Jr. and Bailey, and Aunt Sallie Sharp walked with her. The school was a one room facility that housed grade levels one through six. As with a majority of Henderson County schools, this building doubled as a church known as Wade Chapel A. M. E. She went on to describe that an average day at school consisted of the following subjects: reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic. Mrs. Dunnington-West was not given any books at the age of five, but that did not keep her from learning with the others. A very bright and alert student, upon completion of her education, would graduate with honors.*2
Being a rural county, most school terms ran October-March to allow for harvesting and other farm duties essential for sustaining families through the year. In winter months studenst, along with their teachers, would make fires in wood burning stoves to stay warm during the school day. Neither teacher nor student seemed to mind the challenges they faced in getting to school as a result of the lack of convenience, be it heating or cooling. The means of commuting to school was not the most desired. Gum Creek students arrived by walking, horseback or horse driven carriage. Mrs. Dunnington-West faced these challenges until her graduation on April 14, 1939. Her family ties to the history of the school is very rich. Her grandfather C. S. Sharp, Sr. was a trustee of the school, and her father, Alex Dunnington, purchased the property from the Athens Independent School District following the closure of Gum Creek District # 2 on 14 August 1920. *3
The Texas Constitution of 1869 put "all schools for white and colored on an equal basis, and no longer was a separate property tax for Negroes and Whites maintained, and reaffirmed all provisions for public school, ...and also a poll tax of one dollar and that all money derived from the sale of public lands should constitute a part of the school fund." The scholastic population of this county at that time is recorded as 8, 406. This number was then multiplied by 32.50 to obtain a per student funding ratio. This made a total of $273, 195.06 for public school expenditure in Henderson County. "1400 are Negroes making $45,500.00 for them, 7,006 are White making $227,675.00 for them." Although this reflects the same per student expense in tax dollars, the cumulative effect lowers the overall ratio. School districts in Henderson County were assigned a number as a means of identification; Gum Creek (also known as Baxter-colored) was # 2, Baxter (white) was # 1, Walnut Creek was # 10, etc. Records for colored schools were poorly kept or recorded if at all. In comparison of salaries for colored educators vs. white educators pay was unequal. an experienced colored teacher would earn on average $60.00 per month, while a white teacher monthly salary would average $90.00.*4
A long time educator, beloved by many of her students over the years, was Mrs. Ruby Morgan, born October 12, 1906 to Jeff and Eva Morgan in Athens, Texas. Mrs. Morgan taught at Gum Creek until it closed, and is the only teacher that living students recall. "her Matriculation was in vast and sundry avenues of academic pursuits including; a diploma from Fisher High School, Athens, Tx; B. A. from Prairie View A & M University of Texas; Masters of Education from Texas Southern University, Houston, Tx.; further studies from Prairie View A & M University of Texas." She served as "an educator (Gum Creek Elementary and Fisher High School), administrator for three school districts, Principal and Counselor in Jacksonville Independent School District, finally retiring in 1971 from Fort Worth Independent School District." *5
There is no indication as to when Gum Creek School became. What is know are some of the teachers and years they taught. The following is a partial list complied from pay vouchers of former educators; 1884-1887, P. H. Eddings; 1887-1890, S. H. Wilhite; 1890-1891, J. M. Donnell; 1891-1892, E. Washington; 1892-1893, J. T. Dunnington, and 1893-1895, A. L. Coyett. Ownership of the property on which Gum Creek School sat is questionable at best, at least until 14 August 1920. Trustees of Gum Creek District # 2, C. S. Sharp, Sr., D. R. Roy, R. L. Baxter and E. C. Larkin, came together and purchased the land for $75.00 from Nannie Richardson. This one acre adjoined the home place of Alex Dunnington, who ultimately was to purchase it following the closing of the school. For a legal description, the deeds reflect "the tract lot or parcel of land lying and being situated in the county of Henderson, State of Texas same being a part of the W. T. White survey about three and one half miles south east from the City of Athens." It is further decreed that "in addition to being a school site, (it) shall also be used for church purposes with both church and school having equal privileges to grounds and house."*6
In the early 1940's, many school districts surrounding Athens were closed for financial reasons such as Gum Creek in 1940 and Walnut Creek in 1941. In an obscure note in the Minutes of Athens ISD, September 19, 1939, a teacher was moved into Athens District from Baxter (Gum Creek) on a motion from Dr. N. D. Geddie and seconded by E. M. Henderson, passing on a 5-0 vote. As a result, Gum Creek (Baxter Colored) students of color would now have to go to Athens for schooling. On October 24, 1950, Athens Independent School District Board met and took action "that the former Baxter Community school property, one acre of land and building, be sold to Gum Creek Methodist Church (Colored) for $100.00 subject to State Board approval with the Athens School district retaining all minerals." This was done on a motion from W. C. Richards, seconded by Milton Smith and passed by a vote of 5-0. With is done, another chapter of Henderson County Black Heritage came to a close. *7
1) Interview Mrs. Verna Mae Dunnington-West by Larry E. West; audio tape; June 2002. Deed Record; 14 Aug. 1920; conveying land to trustees; vol. pg 221 2) Audio tape: West interview 3) Audio tape: West interview 4) Minutes: Athens ISD board: Book 5; pg 96; May 5, 1939. History of Henderson County Texas; J. J. Faulk; pg 179-180. 5) Obituary: Ruby Morgan; d. 1 Sep 1990. 6) Pay Vouchers: 1884-1895; 6 each; issued by school district # 2 Deed Records: sold to trustees, Sharp, et al; 1920; (no vol. indicated) page 221. Sold to Alex Dunnington; Book 356, page 169 Legal description: 12-18-00; AB 826 W. White Survey 7) Minutes: Athens ISD Sept; 19, 1939; book 5; pg 101 Athens ISD Book 8, Jul 1950-Aug 1953; dated Oct. 24, 1950.
Note from Holli Boone Kees: A special thanks to Larry for sharing his research of Gum Creek School with us.
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