Meridian Star

September 30, 2012

Seeds of excellence and innovation

By Dr. Bill Scaggs
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN — Arriving in 1923, 39- year-old Horace Ivy began his 30 year career as the leader of Meridian's public schools. As a newly minted PhD, he brought experiences as a public school teacher, principal, superintendent, and state supervisor of high schools. His teaching experiences included summer courses at colleges and several "lighthouse" universities: Peabody College, Columbia University and University of Chicago.

    Both he and the community he came to serve were well prepared. The need for "common schools" — or as we call them today "public schools" — arrived with the first settlers of this region some of us call East Mississippi. Access to "public education" in this region was initiated in places such as Daleville, Marion, Bailey, Alamucha, Vimville and others. These "schools" were operated by groups of families working together to build opportunities for the children of those communities.

    Why in those locations? Easy. That's where folks settled and began seeking opportunities for their families. Schools grew up in homes, churches and barns.  

    As statehood and county lines developed, public education operated on a county by county basis and was legislatively authorized in 1846. The Lauderdale County governing board, which was called "the Board of Police," appointed a five member "school board" and levied a supporting tax. Prior to that time schools were operated by groups of families as "patron schools."  

    The Meridian Public School (MPS) district Horace Ivy led for 30 years was created in 1885 by the Mississippi Legislature. And in 1888 was established as the Meridian Municipal Separate School District. Thus, "common schools" had been in existence in Lauderdale County for almost 75 years prior to the arrival of young Dr. Ivy.

    First among Dr. Ivy's predecessors was A.A. Kincannon, who served as school superintendent from 1887 until 1895. A Noxubee County lad and graduate of the University of Mississippi, he served as an English teacher at Mississippi A & M for three years immediately prior to his selection as Meridian's public school chief. He left Meridian to serve a term as state superintendent,  joined MSCW as President of the "W,"  moved along to be chancellor of Ole Miss from 1907 until 1914, and then to Memphis as school superintendent.

    Dr. Ivy describes Kincannon as a "systems developer."  He was, indeed, a builder of educational opportunities, as well as "schoolhouses." In fact, in his first years in Meridian, brick buildings were built at Chalk, South Side, Wechsler and Witherspoon. That's correct: before 1890!  

    In 1896,  J.C. Fant began a 14 year tenure as Meridian's public education leader. Dr. Fant was a scholar. The son of physician, he earned his bachelor's degree and his first masters degree at Emory and Henry College in southwestern Virginia. He later achieved masters degrees from Ole Miss and New York University, in addition to a PhD from NYU.

    In 1910, Dr. Fant joined the state department of education as superintendent of secondary education, moved on to Ole Miss in 1915 as dean of the school of education. In 1920 he became president of MSCW and served until 1929.

    In 1912 another university president to be, D.C. Hull began an eight year tenure as MPS superintendent. In 1920 he left Meridian to begin his five year tenure as president of Mississippi State University. Alas, he surrendered his cowbell in 1925 to assume the presidency of Kentucky Wesleyan College.

    These are among the giants upon whose shoulders Horace Ivy and those who followed were privileged to stand. Their records of achievement speak to this community's commitment to excellence in education. And to "upbuilding" the people who called this place home.

    Access to opportunity to learn may seem less apparent in this brief trip into yesteryear. And that's another topic for another day. Stay tuned.

    Dr. Bill Scaggs is President-Emeritus of MCC. The opinions and perspectives contained in this column are his alone.