From its inception, the United States was an experiment, a concept in self-government never before practiced in what was then considered the civilized world.
Other experiments would follow.
On Friday, the Columbus Municipal School District will commemorate the bi-centennial of Franklin Academy, the first public school in Mississippi, with a program staged in front of the school at 4 p.m.
Much like our government, Franklin Academy can also be viewed as an experiment — and a quite improbable one at that.
Today, Franklin Academy is a handsome structure near the heart of a city of 24,000 people.
But in 1821, both the school and the city were far less impressive.
In fact, of all the cities that could have been chosen as the cradle of Mississippi public education, Columbus seems like the oddest of choices and the school built there the humblest of facilities.
In 1821, the population of Columbus, then in its infancy, was about 150 people.
It seems counter-intuitive that the distinction of being the site of the first public schools would be the prosperous Mississippi River towns of Natchez or Vicksburg.
What Columbus did have going for it was the right political connections.
Franklin Academy’s first board president was William Cocke, a Virginian who fought in both the American Revolution and War of 1812, served in the Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee legislatures and served as a U.S. Senator from Tennessee.
Cocke migrated to Columbus when he was appointed as Indian agent to the Chickasaw nation in 1814, later serving in the Mississippi Legislature. It seems almost certain that Cocke played a prominent role in landing the state’s first public school for his adopted hometown.
An interesting side note: As Cocke was making plans for Franklin Academy, he asked for advice from an old Virginia friend. Thus, Thomas Jefferson can be considered Franklin Academy’s first education consultant.
The original Franklin Academy hardly reflected the powerful connections that brought it into being, however.
The original Franklin Academy was a simple 30-by-40-foot structure with only a few students. There were no girl students and certainly no Black students, for whom public education would not be available in Columbus until the opening of Union Academy in 1865. There were, however, a few Chickasaw students, children of tribal leaders.
This history of Franklin Academy and the city of Columbus were intertwined from inception.
If you believe as we do that the past informs the present, we believe that synergy is just as important now as it was then.
Public education is essential to the health and prosperity of the communities they serve.
In 1821, Franklin Academy was very much an experiment. It’s growth and success can be directly attributed to the visionary citizens of the era who recognized the importance of public education and its impact on the community.
That is no less true today.