The Man & the School



Below is the history of Professor J.D. Dickerson, Principal of Odd Fellows Hall, Julius Rosenwald School, Toombs County Industrial School of Vidalia, Dickerson Training School and J.D. Dickerson High School.

  Nothing has been taken out of context.

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Dr. Clyde W. Hall - Regent's Professor Emeritus of Engineering Technology ♦ Savannah State College ♦ Savannah, Georgia 31404

Toombs County, GA - History  Vidalia  Rosenwald School

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This file was contributed for use in the USGenWeb Archives by: A.J. Rawls

The ADVANCE-PROGRESS, July 17, 1996/Page 8c

A Brief History of J.D. Dickerson High School, 1904 - 1970

By Clyde W. Hall

Professor James DeWitt Dickerson, a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, came to Vidalia, Georgia to teach in the black school September 1904.  Mr. Dickerson was born in Louisville, Georgia on June 22, 1876, and his parents were Mr. Charlie and Mrs. Eliza Collier Dickerson.  When he came to Vidalia his first task was to convert the old dilapidated Odd Fellows Hall on the west side of McIntosh Street near Pine and Everett Streets into a one room school for 24 ungraded students.  During the same school term in January 1905, he was joined by his wife, Mrs. Gussie P. Hart Dickerson, as the second teacher in this school.  Mrs. Dickerson was born August 10, 1889 in Monroe County, Georgia.

By 1907, the curriculum of the Vidalia black school had expanded to include 1st through 7th grades with 4 students in the graduating class.  Professor Dickerson, as he was affectionately called, received a salary at the time of $40.00 a month for eight months, an annual salary of $320.00.  During this same period, land on Third Avenue was purchased for a black school.  Initially a two room two teacher school house was constructed on this site.

The Julius Rosenwald Fund was created in 1909 by Julius Rosenwald, President of Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago, Illinois because of the influence of Dr. Booker T. Washington, President of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.  This fund was chartered in 1917 with an endowment of $20,000.000.  The fund provided financial assistance to rural southern communities to build decent school buildings for black students providing certain provisions were met such as, the building was properly designed with adequate classroom space, an industrial room, an office, etc. The local school board owned the land on which the building was to be constructed and sufficient financial support came from the local government and black citizens.  The financial contributions of the black citizens could be in the form of skilled and common labor and materials such as logs for lumber.

Professor Dickerson was instrumental in securing the support of the Vidalia black and white communities to build an adequate building for black children, which encouraged the Julius Rosenwald Fund to aid in the construction of a two story school building on Third Avenue in 1918-1919.  This structure had two large class rooms on each floor, a small industrial room and an office.  It was used until 1937 when it was moved across Third Avenue to make room for a new school building. 

After the construction of the Rosenwald School building, teachers and grades were added to the school.  By 1922, the course of study had been elevated to the 9th grade with three students in the upper grade.  The school eventually became known as the Vidalia High and Industrial School.

The Georgia State Department of Education in 1916 created the designation of "Training School" for effective rural black schools.  The initial criteria used to identify these schools were (1) the school property was owned by the county.  (2) the county paid at least $750.00 per year for teachers' salaries, (3) the cirriculum went through the 8th grade, and (4) individual courses such as sewing, cooking, handicraft, gardening, etc. were integral segments of the curriculum.  These schools received special financial assistance from the John F. Slater Fund, a philanthropic entity established in 1882 to aid black schools in the south.  The first designated "Training Schools" in Georgia, were located in Queensland in Ben Hill County, in Tift County and Sandersville in Washington County.  Vidalia High and Industrial School became Toombs County Training School in the early 1930s, denoting its elevated standing among black schools.

On June 3, 1935, the first 11th grade class graduated from Toombs County Training School.  This class had three boys - Walter Ostell Horne, Samuel Forbes Redding and James Henry Wilson; and three girls - Alva Mae Bell, Jocile Cook and Thelma Eddie Jo Moore.  Thelma and Alva were Valedictorian and Salutorian, respectively.  President Benjamin F. Hubert of Georgia State Industrial College (Savannah State College) was the Commencement speaker.  The school had a faculty of nine - Professor J.D. Dickerson, Principal; Mrs. Gussie P. Hart-Dickerson, Assistant Principal; Teachers - Lila M. Cox, Miss Jeannette C. Dorsey, Mr. Cula Douglas Jackson, Miss Annie M. Mayo, Mr. A.J.P. Roberson, Mrs Amelia J. Swinton and Miss Floree E. Tatum.

The achievements of members of the 1935 class were remarkable.  Mr. Walter O. Horne received the Bachelors Degree from Georgia State College (Savannah State College) and the Masters Degree from Atlanta University.  He retired from the Vidalia School System after having served as Principal of the J.D. Dickerson High School for six years (1964 -1970).  After retirement, Mr. Horne was was elected to the Vidalia Board of Education for eight consecutive years where he served as Chairman during his last term.  Mr. Horne was the first black person to be elected to this public office.  Dr. Thelma Eddie Jo Moore (Harmond) received the Bachelors Degree from Ft. Valley State College, the Masters Degree from Atlanta University and the Doctor of Philosophy Degree from Ohio State University.  She served as Chairman of the Division of Education for many years at Savannah State College before she was transferred to Armstrong State College during a desegregation swap of business and education programs between the two colleges.  She retired from Armstrong State College as Professor of Education Emeritus.  Mrs. Alva Mae Bell (Fuller) received the Bachelors degree from Savannah State College, and retired from the Jeff Davis County School System after many successful years of teaching in the elementary schools.  After graduation, Mr. James Henry Wilson enrolled at Forsyth State Teachers and Agricultural College in Forsyth, Georgia but died before the completion of his first term.

The United States Government sought shortly after the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 to relieve the unemployment problems of the great depression by subsidizing the construction of public works projects through the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  On July 5, 1935, the WPA announced its first projects in Georgia costing $10,256,608.  Included in this announcement was a grant of $13,879 to aid in the construction of a $35,830 building for Toombs County Training School.  The local government and citizens had to supplement this grant by $21,951 through local taxation and contributions.  Professor Dickerson played a major role through his reputation and contacts in getting this grant and bringing this project into fruition.  The local black citizens contributed approximately $2,000 above their local property taxation toward this project.

The WPA constructed an attractive brick veneer school building on the site of the Old Rosenwald Building on Third Avenue which opened September 1937.  This school was named Dickerson Training School in honor of Professor Dickerson.  This facility had thirteen class rooms, an auditorium with a seating capacity of 500, a dining room, an office, a library, lavatories, dressing rooms and a basement.  This was the most modern school building for blacks in this section of Georgia at the time.

Dickerson Training School became a state accredited high school and attracted students in grades 1st through 11th from many of the surrounding counties, towns and communities.  Students living outside the city of Vidalia and too far for them to walk to school, boarded in homes near the school, all under the supervision of Professor Dickerson.

In 1939, Mr. T.R. Maxwell, a graduate of Georgia State College (Savannah State College), came to Dickerson Training School as the vocational agricultural teacher.  Under Mr. Maxwell's leadership and supervision with the aid of students and local workers, a concret block Cannery and Shop building was constructed on the eastern section of the campus on Third Avenue.  The Cannery provided services for local citizens to preserve in cans their vegetables when in season for later use.  This facility operated until 1953.  Mr. Maxwell remained at Dickerson Training School until 1955 when he became Principal of Lyons Industrial High School in Lyons, Georgia.

Professor J.D. Dickerson died on September 15, 1947 in his home at 205 Thompson Street in Vidalia after having served as principal of the black school in Vidalia 42 years.  His funeral was held in the auditorium of Dickerson Training School with his Pastor, Reverend W.M. Hall of First African Baptist Church of Vidalia, officiating, and the Smalley's Funeral Home of Vidalia in charge of the burial.  He was buried in front of the Dickerson Training School building.  Professor Dickerson was succeeded as Principal by Mr. Cula Jackson, who had been a former teacher under Mr. Dickerson's leadership.

The General Assembly of Georgia enacted a law in 1947 designating the 12th grade as the end of high school which amended the 1937 law authorizing the 11th grade as the culmination of this experience.  The Minimum Education Foundation Law of 1949 mandated public school systems of the state to elevate all of their schools to 12th grade if they wished to receive state funds.  Dickerson Training School graduated its first 12th grade high school class in June of 1952 in compliance with that law, while Mr. Jackson was Principal.

Mrs. Gussie P. Hart Dickerson retired June 1948 as 7th grade teacher at Dickerson Training after forty-three years of service in the system.  She died October 28, 1956 in her home at 205 Thompson Street in Vidalia.  At the time of Mrs. Dickerson's death, Maudell Blount and Isaih Blount, children of Mr. James and Mrs. Alice Blount of the Cobb Creek Community in Toombs County, were boarding with her in order to attend Dickerson Training School.  They were boarding in Vidalia the same as their sisters Etta Mae and Maude Lee and brother John had done earlier because at the time Toombs County provided no bus transportation for black students in their community to attend school.  Mrs. Dickerson was buried on the campus of Dickerson Training School along side her husband.  However, their bodies were later moved to Eternal Glory Cemetery on the Old Nunez Highway.

The State School Building Authority was authorized by an Act of Georgia General Assembly in 1951 with one of its objectives to provide school buildings and facilities for Georgia public school systems.  On December 7, 1956, the Vidalia Board of Education requested the State School Building Authority to award a contract for $142,900 to construct an addition to Dickerson Training School building.  This addition included administrative offices, academic facilities for teaching English, Mathematics, Social Studies, Sciences, Home Economics and Industrial Arts at the high school level.  The Cannery and Shop Building was razed and this structure was erected on the eastern section of the school's property facing Third Avenue.  In 1958 this building accommodated the elementary school.

At the April 25, 1960 meeting of the Vidalia Board of Education, students and faculty of the Dickerson Training School requested that the name of their school be changed to J.D. Dickerson High School.  This request was granted.

A fire destroyed the 1937 WPA building on the very cold morning of January 25, 1963.  Mrs. Elnora E. Branner of Savannah, Georgia and a teacher of the fifth grade perished in this fire.  She was 60 years old and had been a long time dedicated teacher in the school.

Shortly after, plans were put in motion to rebuild the elementary department.  The Vidalia Board of Education at its February 4, 1963 meeting approved the construction of a new gymnasium in the space origianally occupied by the WPA building, and the construction of a new elementary school on the Roundtree Park site on Georgia State Highway 297.  The old campus would be used exclusively for high school.  The September 1963 enrollment in high school was 205 students and 538 students in the elementary department.  The new elementary school opened as J.D. Dickerson Elementary School, with Mr. Woodrow Love as Principal and with Mr. Walter O. Horne as Assistant Principal in charge of the J.D. Dickerson High School on Third Avenue.

The final "Freedom of Choice Plan" for racially desegregating the public schools of Vidalia was adopted by the Vidalia Board of Education, August 10, 1965.  This plan allowed any student in grades 1st, 7th, 8th, and 12th beginning with the 1965-66 school term to attend any school in the system without regard to race, color or national origin.  The first black students to be admitted to historically white schools were Mary Catherine Henry at Vidalia High School and Bernard Thomas at the First Street Elementary School.

The United States District Courts of the Northern District of Georgia on December 17, 1969 and April 14, 1970, issued orders which invalidated the City's "Freedom of Choice Plan," therefore, the Vidalia Board of Education at its April 20, 1970, meeting approved a desegregation plan which desegregated all the schools in the System by assigning all students in certain grades to certain schools in the System.  Beginning September 1, 1970, all students in grades 1st through 7th were assigned to the J.D. Dickerson Elementary School and all grades 8th through 12th were assigned to the J.D. Dickerson High School facility.

The 1969-70 school year was the last term the J.D. Dickerson High School operated as a racially segregated school, and the June 1970 graduating class was the last high school class to graduate from this institution.  At the close of this high school there were 15 teachers and Mr. Walter Ostell Horne, Principal who was in the first high school class to graduate from this institution.

The name of the school was changed to the J.D. Dickerson School in September 1970 and this plant on Third Avenue closed as a public school June 1974, ending the existence of an illustrious school in Vidalia, Georgia.


1904-1947     Mr. James DeWitt Dickerson

1947-1956     Mr. Cula Douglas Jackson

1956-1959     Mr. Alonza L. Epps

1959-1962     Mr. Charles J. George

1962-1963     Mr. Switzon S. Wigfall

1963-1964     Mr. Woodrow Love

1964-1970     Mr. Walter Ostell Horne