Vernon High School History
Vernon High School’s place in the history of Vernon Parish is understated in many historical accounts, but its presence is still felt by nearly every African American resident of the parish who is a baby boomer. For nearly six decades the school which was located near the site of the Martin Luther King Community Center in Leesville, educated black children in grades one through 11, in spite of several obstacles.
Former Vernon High student and teacher Maxine Gunn said there were many hurdles the school administrators, teachers, parents and students had to overcome daily.
“It [Vernon High School] was the only school where black people could attend. For years there wasn’t any transportation, so many children walked past several schools to get to Vernon,” said Gunn, whose husband, Phillip Gunn, was the second African American to serve on the Vernon Parish School Board and the first to serve as Board president. “I don’t remember what year it took place, but there was a vehicle, not a bus but a truck with benches sent out to a neighborhood near Rosepine to pick up children so they could go to school.”
Vernon High School was previously known as Vernon Parish Training School in the early 20th century, nearly 50 years after slavery was abolished in the state. The school was established in an old two-story brick building near the current site of Greater Bethel AME Church at the corner of Gladys and Nona Streets. The first principal was Professor W.F. Booker. In 1933 Professor Charles Washington became principal and served in that capacity until 1943. Under the leadership of Principal Allen Rushen, the school grew, and a new campus was erected.
Gunn describes the learning environment at the school as nourishing and community oriented. The school was extremely successful in preparing hundreds of children for careers and for college. In spite of the second-class citizenship status the segregated school represented, the community took a negative and turned it into a powerful force not only in Leesville but across the parish.
“We got books that were used from Leesville High School,” Gunn explained. “Many were battered and written in, and some had pages and entire chapters missing. But we were determined to educate and become educated.”
Gunn said the sense of community, a factor that is now being touted by several so-called “charter schools” across the country was prevalent in the school. “We not only taught the children; we went shopping and attended church with them and their parents. I had students over at my house many evenings doing homework and studying. That just isn’t done anymore.”
Receiving hand-me-downs from the white school was routine. When a music department was instituted at Vernon, old instruments were delivered to the school from Leesville High. Within a remarkably short time frame the band at Vernon High became a hit in the community-at-large.
“We had a great music department,” Gunn reminisced. “They hired a wonderful band master who went in there, and although the students had never played an instrument before, really developed that department. When the high school got new band uniforms, they sent the old ones to us. We started marching in the Fair Parade, and at first, they had us after the horses, and you know what’s on the street after the horses. We were so good that after a while the other bands would hurry up when they finished and run back to the parade route to watch Vernon High’s band. It seemed Vernon High band was the star of the parade. After a while, our band master told the parade folks that if we had to march behind the horses we would not participate. That’s when they had us march with the other bands.”
The impact of the school is still felt in the community. Many of the leaders in the African American community are graduates of Vernon High School, and the alumni hold reunions attended by upwards of 300 people every two years. Last year Robert Blow, of Leesville, along with his family, erected a monument to Vernon High School during the school’s reunion weekend activities. The monument stands at the corner of Verone and Nona Streets.
Vernon High School was closed in 1969 as a result of federally mandated integration laws. The last class to graduate from Vernon High School was the class of 1969. The last attending class was the class of 1970, which only attended until October of the school year.
“There were some students and teachers who started the school year at Leesville High School. They took several of our football players early also,” Gunn said. “It was a way for the school district to acclimate the white students to having blacks on campus with them. One day they sent buses to Vernon and told the students to bring everything they had, including their books with them. They bused the Vernon students to Leesville High school.
Gunn described the integration as a “smooth transition” and the doors of Vernon High School were forever closed. However, the legacy of Vernon High School continues to live on in all of those who attended and were shaped by the school that against all odds achieved greatness.