We’re going old-school again this week.
Last week, we visited the old Pilgrim Hill School, an abandoned building that used to house Russell County’s elementary school for black children. It’s on Ware Road, within sight of U.S. 431 a little ways south of the Highway 165 intersection.
Built in 1919, it was a one-room, then two-room schoolhouse with wood-stove heating and privies outside until it closed in 1964 and its students integrated into Mount Olive School in Fort Mitchell.
One of Pilgrim Hill’s last two teachers, Mrs. Katie Mitchell, also moved with her students to Mount Olive, where she would remain on the faculty until she retired in 1986.
“They said they weren’t going to go to Mount Olive unless I went, too,” said Mitchell, who still lives just about a 10-minute drive from Pilgrim Hill.
One of her students at the time was Arthur Day, today a member of Phenix City Council. Day said he recalls carrying buckets of water to the school and collecting firewood for the cast iron stoves.
“I toted many a bucket of water to that school, and I made many a fire there,” Day recalled.
Asked if she remembered teaching Day, Mitchell said, “Oh yes, I remember every one of my students.”
Her memories of Pilgrim Hill are pleasant, she said, in spite of the lack of modern facilities.
“Remember, this was the 1950s in rural Russell County,” Mitchell said. “Nobody had much more that back then.
“We had two of what they called pot-bellied stoves. You had to gather the wood. The county provided coal, but we had the children bring in some wood to start the fires. Everything was lovely, because we didn’t have anything better.”
What she said she remembers most fondly was the relationship between teachers, students and most importantly, with the parents of the students.
“I miss the relationships we had with the parents and the students,” Mitchell said. “We were one big family. It was like a village. Everybody was concerned about each other and we worked together. It was like a close-knit family.”
She said she doesn’t think she could teach today because teachers don’t get the same kind of respect and cooperation from parents and the community that they did back in her day.
“By the time I retired in 1986, I saw that change coming,” Mitchell said.
That respect she earned from her students remains to this day. Her students are all adults now, of course, but they still show the respect and deference they always did.
“If I walk in someplace and one of them is drinking a beer, they’ll hide it real quick,” Mitchell laughed.
Mitchell, now widowed, lives in the house she and her husband built not far from the old school. And at 85, she still takes care of her large, sloping hillside yard, tending to landscaping and mowing the grass on her riding mower.
“Before my husband passed, he had a riding mower too and we mowed the yard together,” Mitchell said. “Oh, how we loved working in that yard together.”
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