1st public school in Mississippi marks its bicentennial

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Franklin Academy in Columbus. (Courtesy of Franklin Academy’s official website)

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi community is celebrating the bicentennial of the state’s first public school, which remains open.

Franklin Academy in Columbus was chartered by the Mississippi Legislature on Feb. 10, 1821. At that time, Mississippi was in its fourth year of statehood.

Franklin is now a medical sciences and wellness magnet school, with about 250 students from kindergarten through fifth grade.

The Commercial Dispatch reported that a bicentennial celebration Friday included presentations by several dignitaries, including Democratic state Rep. Kabir Karriem, who attended Franklin. Karriem mentioned the names of several educators and said they “profoundly impacted by life as a child.”

Mona Vance-Ali, archivist at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, said the school’s first building was a one-room, unsealed wooden structure.

“Over the years, the school has not only made history, but it has witnessed 200 years of accomplishments, challenges and, ultimately, change,” Vance-Ali said.

Franklin was all-white until the Jamison and Doughty families integrated it in 1965. That was 11 years after the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision that banned school segregation, but five years before many other Mississippi schools integrated in 1970. A school for African Americans in Columbus had been founded in 1869 and was christened Union Academy in 1874; three years later, it became a branch of Franklin Academy.

It took until 1886 for Franklin to expand to a three-story brick building with 14 rooms and a chapel. In 1918, the school became an elementary school with the founding of Stephen D. Lee High. The current two-story building was completed in 1939 by the Public Works Administration.

“Few institutions have withstood the challenges of change and time,” Vance-Ali said. “Franklin Academy is one of those shining examples that has weathered the ups and downs and only stood stronger for it.”

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