For more than 60 years,
a publication centered on life in Mississippi.
Today is November 21, 2018

Breathing new life into old places: Gautier Schoolhouse and Cultural Museum

By Nancy Jo Maples

Breathing new life into old places: Gautier Schoolhouse and Cultural Museum

Bill Bray is among those advocating the preservation of the historic Gautier Colored School. The Gautier Historic Schoolhouse Restoration Project seeks to preserve the building and eventually transform it into a cultural museum.

A unique nugget of black history and Jackson County heritage lies just off U.S. 90 in Gautier, and local historians hope to rejuvenate the story behind it.

“The Gautier Colored School matters to the Gautier community because of its role in the community’s African-American educational history and because of the architectural significance of the building itself,” said Bill Bray, one of the leading advocates for the preservation project.

Also known as the West Pascagoula Colored School, the building is tucked on a pristine corner of De La Pointe Drive and Point Bayou Road and surrounded by a cool canopy of trees and foliage. The old building is an eyesore to some, but a historical artifact to others. With concerted effort, the place will become a meeting location for the community as well as a museum to preserve the era and culture that it represents.

“We want to make sure historical value remains in the building. That’s why we are being selective in the materials used for the renovation,” Bray said.

Jackson County purchased the property in the 1920s and appropriated $200 to build a school. Citizens raised another $500 and supplied manpower. A local sawmill provided heart pine wood from virgin timber that was still in existence at that time. The result was a 40x30-foot West Indies-style building featuring windows with 18 panes of glass that served as an educational fort for numerous youngsters ages 6 to 16. Students in all grades learned in a one-room school setting that was warmed in the winter by a pot-belly stove.

Earnestine Ellis Fountain is remembered as the school’s educator, the children’s mentor and the driving force behind all the reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Fountain (1912-2002) began teaching when she was 18 after passing the Mississippi Teacher’s Examination. She spent 40 years in education.

Fountain rode a Greyhound bus from Moss Point to Gautier each day to teach, and after school she cleaned houses for extra money before riding the bus home again for the night. To accommodate operating the school on a low budget, Fountain walked with the children to the railroad depot and picked up loose coal that had spilled from the steam engines to feed the stove to heat the building. Some students brought packed meals for lunch, and Fountain cooked oatmeal to feed the children who didn’t have the luxury of a meal brought from home.

She was the last teacher employed at the Gautier Colored School when it closed in 1946. A concrete block schoolhouse was erected near Fraiser Park that served black Gautier students until integration occurred in the 1960s. Fountain later served as the first African-American principal in the Pascagoula school system when she was the administrator at Fair Elementary School.

Following its closure as a school, the building was used as a community center, senior citizens’ center, voting poll and a meeting venue for Boy Scouts of America, the Gautier Jaycees and the Gautier Men’s Club. However, the structure became too rundown for public use and in 2013, the Mississippi Heritage Trust named it as one of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Places in Mississippi.

Recognizing the historic value of the building and the significance of the stories associated with the old schoolhouse, locals created the Gautier Historic Schoolhouse Restoration Project to preserve the place and document the past. The initial effort has been to secure the building’s infrastructure with the long-range goal of using the building as a cultural museum where exhibits and artifacts will tell the stories of the school children and other groups of people who have gathered there throughout its history.

An $80,000 grant with a $20,000 required match was secured several years ago from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for phase one of the project. Bray said more donations are needed to complete the effort. Contributions of $100 or more will be acknowledged on permanent plaques inside the museum. Checks may be made payable to Gautier Pride and earmarked Gautier Schoolhouse Museum Project. The address to mail donations is P.O. Box 598, Gautier, MS 39553.

Award winning journalist Nancy Jo Maples lives in Lucedale and is the author of "Staying Power: The Story of South Mississippi Electric Power Association." She can be reached at nancyjomaples@aol.com.

Site designed by Marketing Alliance, Inc.