A historical marker off Highway 144 marks the site where the George Washington Carver School once taught thousands of students.
That marker reads:
“On these grounds in 1939, Henry Ford built a school to serve the educational needs of the African-American children of lower Bryan County. Professor Herman Cooper was appointed as the Principal when the school opened later that year, originally with grades one through six. Ford named the school in honor of the prominent African-American educator and agriculturist from Tuskegee Institute, Dr. George Washington Carver. In MarchCarver attended the dedication ceremonies here for the new school named in his honor.”
The names of Ford and Carver are widely known. Ford revolutionized manufacturing and put America on the road.
Carver rose from slavery to become as famous – and esteemed – an inventor of his time as Thomas Edison, and was the first Black in the United States to have a national monument erected in his honor.
Herman Gary Cooper, however, is less well known to history. Here’s a small part of his story, taken at times verbatim from a project compiled by Ford Motor Company historians, and courtesy a link provided by Richmond Hill Historical Society member Christy Sherman.
In 1951, a man named Keith Clark sat down with Cooper at the latter’s office in Darien, and conducted an interview “held under the auspices of the Oral History Section of the Ford Motor Company Archives.”
The result, compiled in 1952, is “The Reminiscences of Mr. H.G. Cooper,” a 28-page typewritten, first-person history available online through the Benson Ford Research Center.
Cooper, the document said, had editorial control over the contents. They begin with his briefly recalling his early childhood education – he was born in Hancock County in 1911, finished elementary school and went to Savannah to Georgia State College, where at the time there was a high school and college, he said.
Cooper graduated both at Georgia State College, now known as Savannah State University, then went on to study at Columbia University.
From there, and after serving as principal of schools in Dublin and Blakely, Cooper “heard about Mr. Ford building new school over in Bryan County. I talked with Mr. Hubert, the president of the college at Savannah, about the school. He thought it would be worth while for me to apply for the principal ship.”
Cooper did, and noted he was told there were “around a hundred applications,” for the job, and not all would get interviews.
“But they selected seven to come over to have an interview with the Board. I was one of the seven,” Cooper recalled, adding that his wife was also interviewed.
“The next week we heard from the chairman, stating that I was elected as superintendent of the school, and my wife was elected as the one of the teachers.”
The Coopers, and other staff, were “asked to report to work on or before September 1, 1939.”
After making arrangements back in Blakely, the Coopers came to Richmond Hill.
“It was kind of difficult for us to get located because they didn’t have a teacherage in the community, and we had to find a place to stay,” Cooper said.
What’s more, while school opened on time, it wasn’t at the school, but in nearby Bryan Missionary Baptist Church.
“They hadn’t finished the main building, so we had school in the church until Christmas that year, 1939.”
It was a crowded, hectic time, Cooper recalled.
“The only thing we could do was get the children classified. We gave standardized tests that would tell us just about where a student would be placed, according to achievement.”
That was made necessary because previous schooling for the county’s Black students was “very inadequate, since one teacher was compelled to teach from grade one through the seventh, and she couldn’t give very much help to the students.”
At the time, the educator noted seven small schools existed “around what is now Ford property, and after they built the main school, they sent buses out to all these communities and brought all the children from the seven schools into the main George Washington Carver school.”
Some, Cooper said, were “very happy to go to school. In fact, they took pride in the school. We emphasized cleanliness, and the children took a great deal of pride in keeping the school clean.”
At the time, teachers were paid much less than they earn now, though there was a state salary schedule. In addition, Richmond Hill Plantation provided George Carver Washington teachers a supplement ranging from $15 to $50, Cooper said.
There was a night school for adults as well, which went as high as fourth grade, and about 25-35 people attended regularly.
“The school was very popular with them because it furnished the adults some place to go,” Cooper said. “The adults themselves didn’t care very much about the studying side of it, but they studied some once they came.”
He said adults were more interested in making things – the men wanted to build cabinets and the women wanted to sew and make quilts.
“Mrs. Ford didn’t like that very well,” Cooper says in his reminiscence. “She was primarily interested in their learning how to read and write.”
That made life tough for teachers trying to hold the interest of students who’d rather be building things, Cooper said, and the night school for adults came to an end at some point in 1945.
One student at that time stood out, apparently.
“He was very interested, because he was going to learn how to write his name so he could sign for his envelope at the pay window,” Cooper said. “He always had to get somebody to sign for him. So he came, and learned, and was so happy because he knew how to sign his name.”
Cooper said at first there were seven grades at George Washington Carver School, and a grade was added each year until a high school was developed.
“Most high schools at that time were of the seven-four plan, seven years elementary and four high school which composed the eleven grades,” he recalled. “So we set up a grade school and a high school on a seven-four plan. We had three classes graduate from the eleventh grade.”
Students at the school were taught academic subjects and trades. Boys took carpentry and “diversified farming,” and the girls took home economics including “sewing, cooking, family relations, home nursing, and consumer buying,” Cooper said.
“All of that was figured in addition to their academic classes,” he recalled. “Mr. Ford’s idea was to have all the boys that could work, take agriculture and shop. So we planned it that way from the fourth grade up.”
The school had about 150 students when it opened. That number climbed to about 250 to 300, and “remained that way until I left there in 1946.”
In 1941, Cooper and his staff opened up a trade school, largely because it was something Ford wanted done “to teach the boys a trade so that when they left school, they’d know how to build something for the home, keep a farm for the family, and help with the upkeep of the home where they live.”
About two years after George Washington Carver School began, the school began a garden project, and J.F. Gregory – for whom a certain Richmond Hill park is named – cleared about 100 acres. It was a cooperative effort, with younger and older students handling various tasks from hoeing to driving tractors.
Produce from the garden was sold or eaten – “one year we had 1,200 crates of sweet potatoes,” Cooper said. “We were given credit for our products rather they were sold or not.”
There also were hogs and chickens, and “at the end of the year we had a record, which we would hand in to the superintendent, of how we stood. After paying for the seeds and fertilizer and labor, we would sometimes come out with about $250 profit. We didn’t use it for the benefit of the school It just went into the general funds of the plantation.”
That because “Mr. Ford was furnishing everything for the school that we needed. It was just an experience with the boys,” and “The only thing Mr. Ford said about the shop and garden was we were teaching boys to be engineers and teaching them to work and grow strong.”
As Cooper understood it, Ford wanted “to develop responsible citizens who would accept responsibilities and take care of themselves.”
Relationship with the Fords
Cooper recalled the first time he met Ford, who was accompanied by Gregory.
Ford’s first words to Cooper were to ask what he was called.
“I said, ‘Well, some call me professor, some call me Mr. Cooper, and some call me Professor Cooper.”
Ford’s response: “He said, ‘Professor Cooper.’ Mr. Ford said further, “That’s all right.’ He called me Professor Cooper for them on.”
Ford did spent a lot of time at George Carver Washington School, Cooper said.
“He’d shake hands with each teacher and spend a little time in the classroom,” Cooper recalled. “He’d do that at least once or twice a week.”
Clara Ford would also come, and Cooper said when that happened Henry Ford wanted him to be on hand.
“He wanted things to be right when she was coming down,” Cooper said. “Of course, I could see very readily why he did, because she was very technical.”
In short, Clara Ford wanted to know everything, and would insist on it.
“She was not,” Cooper said in the reminiscence, “an easy person to work for.”
Cooper said Ford always shook hands when he came to the school, which led to an interesting meeting between the two men at the farm.
“I was down helping the boys plant,” Cooper said. “He came up to shake my hand. I said, “Oh, Mr. Ford, my hand is soiled.”
According to Cooper, Ford “reached right down, picked up some soil, rubbed it between his hands, and said, ‘Now, mine are soiled too; now shake!’”
There was, Cooper said, a reason for Ford’s frequent visits to the school. Cooper said Ford told him, “I don’t want the white people on the plantation to lose interest in the school.”
Cooper didn’t know Dr. Carver was coming to the school until the day before the ceremony dedicating it in his honor.
The next day, Carver, along with Ford’s private secretary, Frank Campsall, the Fords and Tuskegee Institute President Dr. Frederick Patterson arrived.
“So I rang the bell and asked all the teachers to let all the students assemble in the large room where we usually assembled,” Cooper said. “The students were rather slow getting in, and Mr. Campsall was all excited. He wanted to get them in, in a hurry. We got them in just as fast as we could without previous notice.”
As Cooper recalled, when Carver stood up to speak he said he wouldn’t keep them long because of doctor’s orders not to stand on his feet, but “in spite of his preface, he talked at length to the boys about the possibilities they had at Richmond Hill. He reminded the boys of the necessity of coupling God with their possibilities.”
Afterward, things got back to “a somewhat normal school program,” Cooper said.
At the time, a school-organized Parent Teacher Association helped fund scholarships for the graduates. Five of the first graduating class went on to college, and in 1951 – five years after his last year at George Washington Carver School – Cooper knew that three of the five graduated from college.
“One is now a teacher in Wrens High School in the state, one is teaching at Ludowici, Georgia, and one, I believe, is a WAC in the Army.”
Two other students became nurses, he recalled, and Cooper said he heard from them at times.
The educator said the Parent Teacher Association was the driving force behind the students’ willingness to “keep them fighting,” for an education. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have “the financial backing .…”
J.F. Gregory’s help
Cooper said he never discussed running the school directly with Ford, and would instead go to Gregory.
“I want to say this about Mr. Gregory,” Cooper said. “He is the best man I have ever worked under. Where he didn’t have very much formal education, he had a common-sense education.”
In addition, Cooper found Gregory was willing to side with him in difficult circumstances.
Cooper remembered in particular a time when a new county school superintendent arrived, and requested the Richmond Hill Plantation teachers supplement be sent instead to the school system, which in turn would pay all salaries and handle payroll taxes.
That led to a dispute because the superintendent was deducting more than Cooper thought right in taxes, and he believed teachers at George Washington Carver School would walk if they weren’t paid fairly.
Cooper went to Gregory, who agreed and sent the new superintendent over to talk with Cooper.
They eventually came to an agreement to go back to the former way of doing things, albeit one Cooper thought was made reluctantly by the superintendent.
“If it hadn’t been for a man like Mr. Gregory, it would have torn up the whole school program” he said, noting had he given his teachers the checks from the school superintendent with the deductions in place, “I would have had plenty of resignations. But it never did get to the teachers.”
That was one of many times when Gregory supported the George Washington Carver School principal, he said.
“I found that at times he would go against his own race with me when I was right,” Cooper recalled. “You know, it takes a good man to do that, I don’t care what color he is.”
As for Ford’s views on race, Cooper thought the industrialist believed “some of my people had inferiority complexes, and he always talked with that inferiority complex in mind He felt that maybe we thought we weren’t doing so well. Personally, I did not feel that way.”
But Ford also “felt that both race groups should be given equal opportunity and equal compensation for the same type of work. This was seen in the type of school he built for the colored children,” Cooper said. “He said he wanted it to be as good as the school for white children.”
Later, in 1944, Ford showed Cooper an area of 240 acres behind the school and Bryant Neck Missionary Baptist Church where he wanted to move the area’s Black residents, and give them their own village.
“I want to build them a store,” Cooper said Ford told him. “I want them to have their homes, and to have chickens, and a little garden planted.”
Ford then asked Cooper if he thought residents would leave their homes and move to the village. Cooper said he told Ford they would if they had security and could remain their indefinitely, since some already owned homes on Richmond Hill Plantation.
“I think if you would give them a deed to it or some compensation in a way that they would know it is theirs, I’m quite sure they would leave and come here,” Cooper said he told Ford, and Ford replied, “Well, that’s what we want.”
The vision never materialized.
During later talks while riding around with Ford, Cooper said he came to think Ford believed Black residents in Richmond Hill “had not had opportunities to do what they could do,” and wanted to make a place for them to have equal opportunities, it would give them a chance.
“Down in his heart, I believe,” Cooper said of Ford, “he felt that the only thing they needed was an opportunity.”
Ford’s last visit
Because of ill health, Ford didn’t have the strength to stay as involved in his Richmond Hill affairs as he had earlier on, and “didn’t have the strength to go about the plantation as he had before,” Cooper recalled.
That’s when things began to change, according to Cooper’s history.
A man from Michigan came down and surveyed the plantation and brought in a man from South Carolina who surveyed the schools.
“The new men indicated to me a number of changes that would have to be made with which I didn’t agree,” Cooper said.
They insisted. Cooper gave his notice. His resignation was effective June 30, 1946.
Among the changes?
Putting a white woman in charge of the lunchroom, which Cooper said made him feel as if he were a mere figurehead.
“The main motive that I saw behind that was to have a white lady over me,” he said.
Effect on race
Cooper was asked whether Ford’s efforts in Richmond Hill improved race relations, and called it “a pretty hard question to answer.”
“Had it gone on like Mr. Ford had planned it, I believe, it would have had a very marked effect for good relations. Just as soon as Mr. Ford had dropped out of the picture, all that he had done and built up was torn down again.” He added, “We can’t say that it did too much harm, nor can we say that it did very much good. It was intended to do good but the program did not last long enough for the good to become a reality.”
Cooper left education after his time at George Washington Carver Elementary, and became a trained mortician and successful businessman.
He founded Darien Funeral Home and officially opened for business in 1950, the year before he gave the sourced interview for Ford historians.
Cooper died in 2002. He was 91. He is buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah. His wife Catherine was buried next to him in 2005.
A highway in Liberty County, E.B. Cooper Highway in Riceboro, is named for Cooper’s brother, Evans Benjamin Cooper, Sr..
All photos courtesy Richmond Hill Historical Society.