When John S. Dawson first arrived in West Feliciana Parish in 1890, the young educator could never have predicted that he would come to be remembered as a pioneer of education for the parish's Black youth.
Today, 130 years later, Dawson’s former students, successors, and surviving family members are ensuring that his legacy lives on with the formation of the eponymous John S. Dawson Foundation and Alumni Association. The mission of the nonprofit organization, which was founded by Dr. Henry Hardy, an alumnus of John S. Dawson High School; and Ken Dawson, grandson of John Dawson, is to revitalize the property of the old high school facility to serve as a multi-purpose community center.
"When disasters strike, everybody has to pitch in and we would have the perfect place to do just that," says Dr. Hardy. By operating the facility privately, they would have the ability to act immediately and circumvent the red tape of state bureaucracy.
In rural regions like West Feliciana during the early twentieth century, Black schools were often isolated, severely underfunded, and housed within Baptist churches. The "separate but equal" ruling in the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson federally legalized segregated facilities, which rarely proved to be truly "equal." But in St. Francisville, two progressive-minded white men named John Jones and C.H. Argue worked to recruit Dawson to relocate to West Feliciana from Mississippi, to teach the parish's Black students at a time when even basic education, much less secondary schooling, for Black children was virtually nonexistent.
"You're looking at a very hostile time in the country and this incredible racial division, and yet you have Black families and white families come together and do something historic," Ken Dawson says. "It shows that they knew something had to be done, and that it was bigger than themselves."
“They Called Him Professor”
Dawson was just 19 years old when he registered 125 students at the Laurel Hill school that first year, a building that would eventually become known as The Dawson School. Like many schools for Black children, Laurel Hill went only through the seventh grade, and students attended high school only if they could manage the more than 35-mile commute to McKinley High in Baton Rouge.
The beloved educator taught in West Feliciana for the next fifty-odd years, leaving an indelible mark on countless students until his death in 1950. After his passing, three white families donated thirteen acres of land for a new high school to be named in Dawson’s honor. John S. Dawson High School was the first public high school for Black students in West Feliciana Parish; of Dawson's four children, two of his sons served as principals, and many alumni went on to graduate college and enter the white-collar workforce. The high school closed in 1969 following the Supreme Court ruling to desegregate the parish’s schools. The building on Highway 66 fell into disrepair in the decades since, where it would have remained abandoned if not for the efforts of a few dedicated descendants.
Preserving the Legacy: The Revitalization Project
Dr. Henry Hardy, a retired professor and graduate of the J.S. Dawson High School class of 1958, founded the John S. Dawson Alumni Association and Foundation in 2009 with Ken Dawson. They began a massive clean-up effort of the overgrown school site, and a few years and several applications later, successfully saw the campus added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.
In 2017, the West Feliciana Parish Historical Society hosted the opening of “The Dawson Legacy of Education in West Feliciana Parish,” an exhibit which became the core of a permanent John S. Dawson exhibition that features photos, documents, and artifacts relating to Dawson's life and educational legacy. That same year, Louisiana Public Broadcasting aired a film segment on the Dawson Legacy, and in 2019, videographer Kevin McQuarn produced a short documentary entitled “The Dawson Legacy” for the foundation.
The next project the foundation undertook would be its biggest yet: revitalizing the landsite to serve as a community center to be used for emergency preparedness, educational programs, and more. Dr. Hardy and Ken Dawson envision forming a coalition with the Sheriff's Office to coordinate use of the facility in emergencies, such as for shelter or housing in the event of inclement weather. The organization also plans to partner with the West Feliciana Public School Board, working with Superintendent Hollis Milton to utilize the off-campus space for enriching extracurricular workshops and to develop academic curriculum for students interested in STEM, nutrition and agriculture, and even sound engineering and film production.
"It all goes back to the mission of the organization, which is to enhance the education and social welfare of all citizens of West Feliciana Parish," says Dr. Hardy. "We have to reach these kids at an early age and use the resources we have to introduce them to the applied sciences."
The foundation has already submitted its Capital Outlay Application along with several letters of support from local elected officials, including Rep. Roy "Daryl" Adams, Sen. Neil Riser, former St. Francisville Mayor Billy D'Aquilla, and the entire school board. The Capital Outlay Grant provides funding for public improvement projects and has to be approved by the Louisiana Legislature. The center would cost just over $5 million.
The foundation has plans to eventually publish a book, Ken Dawson says, as well as to develop a full-length feature film in the future, ensuring that John S. Dawson’s story is passed down for generations to come.
"We want to let this small parish be an example to the state, be an example to the nation of how you can come together to do something significant that benefits everyone," says Ken Dawson. "That's the focus, and we have the leadership components right here in this parish."
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