Much to be learned at the B. F. Ford exhibit at Union County Heritage Museum

NEMiss.News B. F. Ford School exhibit open at museum
Museum Director Jill Smith (standing left) and Dr. Stuart Rockoff (standing right), Director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, at the opening of the B.F. Ford School Exhibit at the Union County Heritage Museum.
February 21st, 2022     Featured News History

“When you need a helping hand, look on the end of your arm and get to work.”

–B. F. Ford, 1893-1950

 

The opening of the B. F. Ford exhibit at the Union County Heritage Museum was a time of nostalgia and for honoring the amazing accomplishments of one man. As with much nostalgia, the time remembered was one to which most people would not really want to return.

The photographs, books, trophies and objects on display are from the Jim Crow era, the time before the federal government ended racial segregation of schools in the 1960s. (See exhibit photos below.)

Museum Director Jill Smith, Lee Ann Thompson and others worked for months researching the history of B.F. Ford and assembling the materials exhibited. It brought back memories for those who experienced it. For those too young to know how things were half a century ago, it gives a hint of what the education of African-American’s was like before 1969, when the notion of “separate but equal” facilities officially ended in Mississippi.

Besides material about B. F. Ford School and the man for whom it is named, the exhibited also includes information about the several segregated elementary schools then in operation in rural Union County.

The exhibit opened at noon Friday, February 11 with something over a hundred people present at the Museum. The B. F. Ford exhibit was funded by a grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council. Its director, Dr. Stuart Rockoff, spoke at the opening event, praising the quality of the exhibit itself and lauding the Union County Heritage Museum for its continuing work of research, exhibits and community activities. Many believe it is the premier museum in America for cities the size of New Albany.

Jill Smith and Lee Ann Thompson spoke, as did Cheryl Brewer Davis, a great granddaughter of B. F. Ford. Henry Cobb of the Red Hill community spoke and told how B. F. Ford School prepared him to earn multiple university degrees.

Sam Mosely, a well-known musician and songwriter with two gold records to his credit talked about attending Beaver Dam School not far from the Tippah-Union County line. Mosely recalled how devoted the teachers were and how they used meager resources to get good results. Mosely recalled how that, during his time at Beaver Dam School, “I never had a new textbook.” It was routine then for white students to get new textbooks; the used books passed on to children in black schools. “We country boys were used to playing basketball on dirt so we enjoyed playing on a real gym floor at B. F. Ford High School,” said Mosely.

The central focus of the exhibit is the extraordinary life of Benjamin Franklin Ford.

A native of Hattiesburg, Ford was 28 years old when he came to New Albany in 1921. The New Albany School Board had hired Ford as the principal and a teacher of what was then called Union County Training School. It was housed in a dilapidated three-story Gothic Revival mansion on what was then called Baker Street. The school had just five teachers and was poorly equipped. It educated African-American children in grades 1-8.

Ford set to work with vision and exceptional energy. By the time of his early death in 1950 at age 57, B. F. Ford had overcome discouragement and innumerable obstacles to create a school that offered 12 full grades and a high school diploma.

Besides expanding the curriculum to a full 12 grades, Ford saw to it that a gym was built and a home economics facility was developed. A school orchestra was established in the 1930s.

Ford also functioned as coach. The school’s athletes became competitive statewide. The Union County Training School basketball team won the state championship in 1947. The team was state champion again in 1953, after the school was named for B. F. Ford.

An important feature of school activities during the Jim Crow era was the opportunity Union County Training School/B. F. Ford students had to travel outside of Mississippi. Until the late 1960s, opportunities for black people to travel in the south were limited. Many restaurants, hotels and other public facilities were closed to them. Using “The Green Book,” a book for African-American travelers published from 1936 to 1966, the staff of B. F. Ford school planned and carried out trips for the school’s students. They traveled to Canada, to Washington, D.C., to the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York City, to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and to George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Mrs. Leota Gibson was one of the people who planned these trips.

Dozens of black veterans of military service during World War II were given the opportunity when they returned home to study at B. F. Ford School. Among the veterans who studied after the war at B. F. Ford were: Herman Adkins, Smith Alexander, Herbert Armstrong, L. V. Baldon, Earl Cummings, Bazil Fitzpatrick, Gates Fitzpatrick, Lura Foster, Marvin Hamilton, Jimmy L. King, W. T. King, Loyd Kimmons, Troy Leaper, Artree L. Magaha, Robert Newton, David Pegues, Robert Scott, Edward Standifer, Mose Ticer, McClain Usher, Robert Wilson and Charles Woodruff.

The last few years of Ford’s life were, perhaps, the most challenging, but were also marked by extraordinary accomplishment.

The old house on Baker Street burned in 1943. For several years classes were held in a wooden, barn-like gymnasium, in the “home economics cottage,” and in churches. In 1948 the burned-out house was demolished and replaced by a new brick building. Designed by Architect Robert McKnight, the new “Art Moderne” building was considered the premier high school for African-American students in North Mississippi.

The school board renamed the campus for B. F. Ford after his death in 1950.

The scale and significance of what Benjamin Franklin Ford accomplished in his short lifetime is especially compelling, because of the circumstances under which he worked. This was the time of Jim Crow, “separate but equal,” lawful segregation – not just in the South, but also in many places well north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Ford’s work was all accomplished before the U. S. Supreme Court’s desegregation decision in 1954. Clearly, his intelligence, performance and persistence had won Ford enough clout in the community and with the school board to accomplish so much in his brief lifetime.

I had the opportunity after the exhibit opened to visit with Sam Mosely. I asked him to repeat for me an anecdote he first told me several years ago.

Many will remember Dr. David Ellis, who died at age 94 in 2014, after practicing medicine and being active in local affairs for many decades: Sam’s story goes like this:

David Ellis and Jack Mosely, Sam’s older cousin, were playmates, who grew up on subsistence farms in the northern end of Union County. They walked to school together most days, staying together until they reached a fork in the dirt road. Then Dave Ellis would take the left path to the white elementary school called Tippah-Union near the county line. Jack Mosely would take the right fork to Beaver Dam, the school for black children.

William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The B. F. Ford Exhibit at the Union County Heritage Museum, 114 Cleveland Street, New Albany, will remain open until late March.

A State of Mississippi historical marker at the B. F. Ford School site was unveiled Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

B.F. Ford School Exhibit visitors:

 

B.F. Ford School Exhibit sample:

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