BROWNWOOD, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – Teach a man to fish and he’ll never go hungry; teach a man to learn and there’s no telling what he’ll achieve. This was the mindset of a few good men and women in 1890s Brown County. But at the time, segregation left little to no opportunities for young African Americans to receive a formal education.
At the request of his wife Bettie, George Griffin built the Griffin Schoolhouse in the early 1900’s. It was just a little more than a wooden shack on the rural West Texas plains, but enough for the Griffins to bring education to Black American children in the area.
Above: Griffin Schoolhouse upon rediscovery 1990s, and Bettie Griffin
More than 100 years would pass, and their great grandson, Todd Kirk holds degrees as an engineer, mortician, and plays piano in his spare time.
“I had Aunt Ida and Aunt Carrie. Growing up, I used to sit and talk with them. They would talk about a schoolhouse that their mom wanted their dad to build for them,” Kirk recalled.
Imagine his surprise when, on a trip to the Brown County Museum of History, he came face-to-face with the subject of his grandaunt’s stories.
“I’m walking around, and here was this schoolhouse that they’re talking about,” said Kirk.
The schoolhouse now sits inside the museum, rescued from the ravages of nature in the 1990s.
In it’s heyday, the Griffin Schoolhouse saw generations of rural Brown County children through their lower and higher level studies. Most days, it was Mrs. Griffin teaching the students, but every so often an Abilene teacher would ride on into town.
The Griffins investment in the community would pay back ten-fold, as Kirk can attest to his family’s legacy.
“I wish more people were like that,” Kirk remarked with pride. “We have engineers in our family, we have morticians, we have doctors.”
To Kirk’s satisfaction, more people like that did exist, even back then. Just down the road in Brownwood city limits, a man was making moves to establish a school for young Black children who were not able to attend the white-only school there in town.
“Out of Fort Concho in San Angelo from the 10th cavalry, there was a Buffalo soldier. His name was George smith,” began Hank Hunter, board president of Rufus F. Hardin Museum.
Smith would lead the charge to organize classes in homes and churches around Brownwood. Later, he constructed a series of small wooden buildings to hold classes. Those structures burned down, but Smith wouldn’t give up on the youth of his community.
Above: R.F. Hardin High School track (1938-39), basketball, and baseball teams (1922-1923)
“When the white school – the Coggins School – had burned, the school district decided to take the salvaged materials,” Hunter explained.
From the ashes of the Coggins school, the Rufus F. Hardin Colored Highschool was born in 1917. Although everything from the furniture to the very foundation of the school was secondhand, the Hardin Tigers made it their home.
“I talked to a graduate of the first class of 1918. I said, ‘well, what did you like about Hardin?’ And she said, ‘I loved everything,'” illustrated Hunter.
The school was named for beloved principal and teacher of nearly 40 years, Professor Rufus F. Hardin. He and his wife, having no children of their own, were described to have poured their lives and passion into the school.
“It was said they thought of all the school kids as their own children,” Hunter included.
Above: Hardin High School early diploma, and graduating class of 1925
The school continued to be used post-segregation as an elementary and kindergarten. Later, it was utilized for storage until a group of alumni purchased the grounds in the late 1990s. Their dream, to turn their beloved school into a historic museum.
Hunter switched gears, “It’s 2023 and I’m still standing in a dark building.”
Although many of the alumni have passed on, Hunter told KTAB/KRBC he and the board are more committed than ever to seeing their dream through. He explained that they owe it to all the lives changed to preserve this important piece of Brown County history.
“I know good and well some of those alum are not going to let me into heaven until it’s done,” Hunter said.
The example and longstanding legacies of these pioneering men and women, have stood as testament to their determination, and a guiding force for future generations.
Above: Todd Kirk sits in Griffin Schoolhouse doorway 2023, and Hardin School in 2023
Kirk pondered, “It makes me think, ‘what am I gonna do now for my community?'”
The group that created this first opportunity to teach Black students had defined the futures of thousands of lives, not by the constraints of time, but by the strength of the community.
The Hardin Organization is not currently able to accept donations for the school, but those wishing to get involved can contact Hank Hunter by clicking here to shoot an email, or call this number: (325) 624-2779; you can also email Charles Lowe or call: (325) 998-0773.