L.A. Gandy Jr. moved away from his native Columbus more than 30 years ago. But when he returns for visits, he always stops by his old school, R.E. Hunt High School on 20th Street North.
“It’s where I got my start,” Gandy said as he looked around the museum housed at the old campus during a reunion of the class of 1960 on Friday. “Right here.”
Until Columbus schools desegregated in 1971, Hunt was one of the only black high schools in Lowndes County, and it was held in high esteem by the African-American community, said R.E. Hunt Museum and Cultural Center director Johnny Johnson.
“Hunt was a mecca for black schools in the Lowndes County area back in the early ’50s,” Johnson said. “… So it carries lots of history.”
Though it no longer houses students, Hunt High’s history still is displayed on its walls and in its rooms and hallways. The oft-visited museum located in the back portion of the old school contains photos of graduating classes, biographies of prominent Columbus African Americans and antiques from the mid-20th century — from an old washboard and sewing machine to a typewriter that once belonged to Carlotta Walls LaNair, one of the Little Rock Nine who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957.
“So many of our alumni come back to that building and they’re just totally impressed with the things that we have preserved over that period of time,” Johnson said. “That’s mainly what we’re trying to do, is keep the old Hunt High memory alive.”
Even though the Hunt Museum’s entire mission is centered on history, it is not designated as a State Historic Landmark by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Johnson said he and others have tried to at least get a historical marker from the state marking the campus as a historic site, but even that request has so far fallen on deaf ears.
In contrast, MDAH has granted State Landmark status to the abandoned Lee High School on Military Road — which was built around 1950 and served as the white high school in the final years of segregation in the city — ahead of a promised multi-million dollar redevelopment at the site for which the developer hopes to use historic tax credits.
Development potential expedited Lee’s designation
State Landmark Status is the highest level of historical preservation protection MDAH bestows to a property. It gives MDAH significant approval authority over changes made to those properties, and opens a bevy of tax credits and reimbursements to restoration efforts.
MDAH’s board of trustees approved Lee High for landmark status in May, a month before developer Scott Berry closed the deal to purchase the roughly 15-acre site from the Columbus Redevelopment Authority and begin work on his high-end residential/commercial project, for which he plans to restore and use the original school building.
Lee’s architecture and its role as a segregated school factored into its historical significance when designated. In May MDAH board member Nancy Carpenter, who also is executive director for the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau, said landmark status for Hunt was forthcoming.
But since then trustees have met twice — once in July and at the campus of Mississippi State University on Friday — to consider landmark statuses for other properties across the state.
In both meetings, Hunt wasn’t on the agenda. The property also hasn’t been through the 30-day public comment period required for trustees to even consider it.
Carpenter, speaking with The Dispatch on Friday, said she still supports landmark status for Hunt, but the pending development at Lee — and the tax credits Berry could use there — gave trustees more urgency in acting on that property.
“It was necessary to get that landmark status (at Lee) because of the development,” Carpenter said. “The need was just there so the developer could move forward with the project.
“This is not a racially divisive question or situation,” she later added. “… If (Lee) were named a landmark, then it means more for the developer in terms of tax credits. That is strictly the only reason why Lee took precedence over Hunt being named.”
Carpenter now says Hunt’s designation could come “if not in January, probably April at latest.”
“I think it’s a significant building because of the African American community and what Hunt School meant here in Columbus,” she added.
MDAH official: Both schools are historically significant
Jim Woodrick, MDAH deputy state historic preservation officer, said department staff considers Hunt and Lee significant “as a pair.” Both were designed by the same architect and represent the equalization era when communities in the South attempted to forestall integration by creating “separate but equal” school facilities for blacks and whites.
However, Woodrick also credited the pending development at Lee for the need to expedite its designation because MDAH loses its ability to landmark a building once it passes from public to private ownership.
Until June, Columbus Municipal School District owned the Lee campus — which closed as Lee Middle School in 2011 when the new Columbus Middle School was built on Highway 373. It’s been abandoned ever since.
The district spent several years trying to sell the property, during which time the asbestos-filled buildings became run-down and vandalized with graffiti. Lee was the site of a couple of break-ins earlier this year.
The redevelopment authority, also a public entity, began marketing the site in 2016 and exercised its purchase option from the school district in June before selling it to the private developer.
“We knew there was a developer interested in purchasing the property,” Woodrick said. “We felt strongly that he would be using a historic preservation tax credit, meaning he would work with us to do the development in using the standards that we would always use if it were landmarked. If it went out of public ownership, we would have no protection for it. It was to ensure that we would have a stake in what happened to the property.”
‘A worthy idea’
Woodrick said his staff still supports landmark status for Hunt — which CMSD still owns — and believes that site would greatly benefit from that protection.
He also acknowledged creating a situation where the campus that served white students was a landmark, while the one that served black students wasn’t, could be “upsetting” for the public.
Woodrick put some of the responsibility on CMSD’s board, which he said supported CRA’s efforts to landmark Lee High but has not collaborated with MDAH for Hunt’s designation.
“We don’t want somebody to be upset because they think it’s a slight,” he said. “We absolutely, 100 percent support designation. We weren’t sure there was support to designate Hunt on the school board. That’s the difference.
“There are instances around the state, where we designated a black school and not a white school or vice-versa,” he added, though he didn’t have specific examples available when speaking to The Dispatch. “It has to deal with need, and threat to the building sometimes.”
MDAH also can initiate the landmarking process on its own, Woodrick said.
Speaking to The Dispatch on Friday, CMSD Board President Jason Spears said he isn’t aware how to request Hunt receive landmark status and the board hadn’t discussed it. He said the board did support Lee’s designation in light of developer interest, at CRA’s request.
He called designating Hunt a “worthy idea” he thought would have “wide community support.”
“Certainly I believe it would deserve the status just as Lee was designated,” Spears said, also adding he would talk to the school district’s attorneys and plans to raise the issue at the next school board meeting.