The South has always had a peculiar relationship with education.
Statistics play this out: For instance, a greater percentage of the Southern population attend college as opposed to that of the North. This is true today, and it was true in the 1800s. Yet the overall illiteracy rate among Southern whites is higher than among Northern whites, and while this may be marginally true today, it was profoundly so in the 1800s.
Many of the nation’s finest colleges and universities are located south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In fact, the oldest state-supported university in the country is the University of Georgia, established in 1785. But while Georgia’s Constitution called on the public to support education, very little was actually done to see this through until the 20th century.
There could be a number of reasons for this. One likely factor is that the North has always been more urban and industrial than the South. Fewer Northern youths attended college because more of them could expect to earn their livings at skilled trades, and a skilled industrial workforce requires at least a minimal education in reading and mathematics.
The South, by contrast, was almost purely agricultural. Young men expected to work the same land that their parents and grandparents had worked. In such a world, the skills needed to succeed were hardly academic. A boy was expected to know how to handle a gun, handle a horse, handle his liquor and handle his tongue. Reading and math seldom went beyond what could be learned at home.
For this reason, despite calls from the legislature, Georgia farmers saw little reason why they should pay taxes to teach farm children skills they would not need. Education was the domain of the elite, who paid to send their sons to university and hired private tutors for their children at home.
Not everyone in Georgia shared this view, and attitudes toward education evolved as a peculiar phenomenon occurred. A “rural middle class” appeared as the result of a devolving aristocracy. Because wealthy landowners had large families (10 or more children was quite common), their estates were continually carved up in order to grant an inheritance to each child. Eventually, a generation of men and women found themselves with impeccable pedigrees, but very little else.
In order to maintain their social status, these “plantation orphans” sought to establish their children in such professions as law and medicine (Southerner’s traditionally disdained banking and commerce). Education was the key to this, and as funds became limited, public education became more attractive.
Since education hitherto had been a privately funded affair, schools supported by tax dollars were referred to as “poor schools.” School facilities were usually a one-room cabin, a church building or a room in the teacher’s home.
It warrants mentioning that Georgia law, before 1865, forbade the education of Negroes altogether, although some slave owners and many religious groups chose to ignore this law.
In Cobb County, the first public school was established along with the county. Cobb was created as a result of the , and the Georgia Legislature created Cobb Academy the following year. The edifice was constructed in 1835.
By the late 1800s, Cobb’s landscape was dotted with tiny, one-room school houses. Since Reconstruction, the law provided for the education of black children as well, but they were educated separately, and legislators were slow to allocate funds for black schools. As a result, most black schools were housed in abandoned or donated buildings and in churches.
Funding for schools was still limited, and class was seldom held for more than a few months out of each year. But in Marietta, which had a much higher per capita income than the rest of the county, civic leaders believed they could provide a higher quality education if they separated from Cobb.
In 1892, Marietta created its own school district and began the construction of two new schools–a brick structure on Waterman Street for white children, and a wooden structure on Lemon Street for black children. These were later joined by the Haynes Street School, built in 1913, and Marietta High School, built in 1924.
Apparently, Marietta’s efforts paid off. Judson C. Ward, executive vice president at Emory University from 1970 to 1979, claimed that the education he received at Marietta High School prepared him for success in any academic circle.