January 18, 2014

Gertrude McFarland: A vital piece of Dalton’s history

— I have been distressed to read of the possible closing of the Emery Center due to lack of funding for needed repairs.

Perhaps many of our citizens are not aware of the rich heritage connected with Emery Street School. I am a retired third-grade teacher in Dalton Public Schools, and a number of years ago I was appointed to a committee to research and develop a history of the school system. I spent many hours after school in the central office, at that time located in the old post office building on Hamilton Street.

The school board minutes dating from 1886 are almost complete and the following facts were uncovered. During the summer of 1886, a group of far-sighted citizens, all prominent businessmen, decided that the thriving community of Dalton must have a public school system. One of the committee members had conducted a census to see if there were enough children in the community to make a public school system feasible at that time. It was reported that the following number of children were residing within the city limits of Dalton from ages of 7 to 16: white, 515, and black, 263.

A committee had earlier been appointed to investigate the possibility of purchasing the “Jackson” property for use as a school for black children. However, the committee reported adversely to that plan, and plans were immediately made to build a school. A design was drawn up and bids were solicited. On Oct. 9, 1886, the contracting firm of McKay and Risner, being the lowest bidder at $750, received the contract for the new building. However, at the next meeting a representative of that firm announced that the bid had been drawn up too hastily and they could not possibly build the desired building for the quoted price. After further consultation with the board, a price of $833 was agreed upon by both parties.

The site selected for the school was Spring Square where the present-day Emery Center is located. During the era of segregation, the Emery School was the first school built for the express purpose of educating African-Americans in the entire area. At one time, children were bused from Murray County to Emery Street, and some even boarded in Dalton just to have a chance to receive an education. The school was also the first school in Dalton built expressly for public education.

The white children went to school in the buildings on Fort Hill, formerly housing a private school for boys, Crawford High School, later known as Joe Brown University. The Rev. Hiram Baker, Mrs. Baker and Miss Mattie Broyles were elected as teachers at the Spring Square school, as it was then called.

Since my first visit to the Emery Center I have been most impressed and have encouraged others to visit as well. It is a good place to take our children — introducing them to a time that must not be forgotten. I’ve often taken out of town visitors to the center and all have come away impressed. If you have not seen the center you are encouraged to do so. There is also an auditorium that is a good place to hold meetings.

The original Spring Square building burned in 1909 and was not rebuilt until 1924 on the same site. However, classes were held during the intervening years in the Black Presbyterian Church and in the Masonic Hall — and education was not interrupted.

We must not lose this vital bit of Dalton’s history!

Former educator Gertrude M. “Tut” McFarland is a lifelong resident of Dalton.