Origins of Poteau's Schools: Oklahoma's First Free School
The Subscription Schools
The origins of Poteau’s modern school system can be traced back to 1898. Before then, there were two “subscription” schools. The first dates back to around 1875. It was located near the intersection of College and Broadway and consisted of an old log house with dirt floors. The school was primitive by most standards, but it sufficed. Jim Evans taught at the schoolhouse, and charged the students one dollar a month to attend. While this fee paid for his salary and other teaching supplies, it did not leave enough left over for furniture. The children had to use the windowsills for seats.
The second school was located in the upstairs of a two story frame structure located just south of Beard and Broadway. It was in use for just a few short years, from around 1890 until 1898. While the existing school had served the community well, city leaders decided that it was time to erect a more permanent school.
The First Free School in Indian Territory
In 1898, Poteau residents supported this idea and voted to tax themselves $6,000 for the construction of the school. In addition to these funds, many residents also contributed money towards the project. Gerhard H. Witte, of the Witteville Coal Mine and future mayor of Poteau, was a prime mover in the erection of permanent school buildings, and was a liberal contributor of his private means toward the general welfare of the city.
The building was constructed of native stone and was located at the end of Bagwell, between Walter and Saddler. This building was constructed for a total sum of $8,000, all of which had been collected by contributions by the community. After construction, the two-story building measured roughly 32 feet square and sat on six acres of open campus. In the early days, it was heated by pot-belly stoves and lit by oil lanterns. The school catalog for 1899-1900 described the building as "a commodious, five room two-story gray stone edifice, beautiful located in a five-acre campus. It has a seating capacity sufficient for the accommodation of three hundred students, and is seated with the very best Automatic Ball-Bearing Desks, the High School Department having single, and the Primary and Intermediate Departments having double desks, with separate seats."
Known as the first free school in Indian Territory, free tuition was available to everyone between the ages of 6 and 21 who lived within the city limits of Poteau. Those who lived outside were required to pay a small tuition.
School began at 8 am and ended at 4 pm, with two recesses and a noon period. Class size ran right around 30 people. Games they played included black man, town ball, bull pen and stink base. In the early days, the school song, "Sun light, sun light in my soul today", was sung in the mornings.
Walter Beard was the president of the school board in 1899, followed by R. S. Bridgman 1900. Sam Hamilton was the first superintendent of the school and served for two years. During this time, the school didn’t have a principal. For many years, the superintendent also served in this capacity. He was paid $55 per month for none months for the first year. The second year his contract read, "salary 75$ per month for six months or longer, if funds are sufficient.” Sam Hamilton served until 1901 when E. Rodman became the superintendent. E. Rodman served until 1912. The Poteau Rodman Grade School was named in his honor.
Expansion and Segregation
By 1904, more room was needed. A small wooden building was erected on the north side of the rock building. By 1906, still more room was needed. This time bonds were voted and a two story brick building more than twice the size of the rock portion was added. This building was erected at a cost of $10,000.
Following the segregation laws in the state, in 1914, a "negro" school was opened in Poteau. P.J. Carter was the teacher, and the school had 10 black children. This school was originally housed in a one-room wood frame structure. Sometime between 1920 and 1935, a new school was built out of stone. This school was named Dunbar in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Mr. Dunbar was the first influential black poet in American literature. Not only was he an inspired writer, but he was also one of the first black men to transcend the “separate but equal” policies. He was an inspiration to much of the black generations that followed him. In 1955 Poteau became the first state school district in Oklahoma to announce that it would integrate.
New Schools Added
A new high school building was constructed in 1921 at a cost of $75,000. It is now known as Pansy Kidd Middle School. Architect M.T. Hardin, out of Muskogee, Oklahoma designed the new school. Joseph S. Terry was hired to build the high school.
By 1937, the new high school also proved to be inadequate and a new building was constructed. The WPA gym was also constructed at this time.
With Poteau’s tremendous growth, the original school campus could not adequately hold the influx of new students. Around the late 1930’s, Rodman Elementary School was constructed below the WPA Library and Community Building. It is unknown if Rodman was a WPA project as it does not follow typical building practices of the WPA era. Generally, WPA buildings are marked as such and are listed in the State Historic Register.
Following Rodman, Simpson and Hower Elementary were constructed, followed by the “new” high school and Carl Albert Junior College.
Although the information contained here came from a variety of sources, most comes from The Birth of Poteau, Oklahoma Corporation Commission Reports, Poteau Public School Archives, Early Poteau Facts by P.C. Bolger, and early written interviews and accounts.
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© 2017 Eric Standridge