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POMP & CIRCUMSTANCE: Class of 2020 & 1919

It’s graduation time for the Class of 2020, and the news in the Brewton area and throughout the country continues to focus on the disruption of normal educational activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools previously transitioned to online instruction, authorities cancelled extracurricular and sports activities, and administrators temporarily suspended end-of-year senior activities and graduation ceremonies. As the state and nation eventually began loosening some of the restrictions, many schools proceeded cautiously with either virtual graduations or scaled-back ceremonies with limited attendance, face masks, and other social distancing constraints. Fortunately, local school leaders found creative ways to honor the seniors of 2020 while maintaining the health and safety of all involved.
As I read and hear of these extraordinary events that today’s students encountered during the end of their senior year, I am reminded of the story told to me by my grandmother of the obstacles and uncertainties during her senior year of high school – way back in 1918-19. Bessie Cushman Padgett was the youngest of eight children born to James Monroe Padgett and Mollie Hodge Rabb. The Padgett and Rabb families settled in Conecuh County in the early days of Alabama statehood, but the young couple moved to Brewton in 1887 shortly after their marriage and birth of their first child in Evergreen. From 1887 through 1901, the other Padgett children (including Bessie) were born in Brewton – some in town and others on the family farm (now known as Double M Farms) in the Kirkland area.
Bessie and her siblings attended the public schools of Brewton – then named Brewton Collegiate Institute (BCI). In 1885 Brewton businessmen, realizing the importance of a superior, local high school, established the Brewton Institute on the north end of the property where the Escambia County Courthouse now stands. The name changed to Brewton Collegiate Institute in 1891 when school officials added collegiate courses to the curriculum and the Alabama State Legislature re-incorporated the institution. Fire destroyed the original building in 1894, but the town quickly rebuilt the school as a larger, two-story brick building on the same site. Bessie noted that BCI was known for its academics – the school offered courses in English, history, algebra I & II, plane & solid geometry, chemistry, physics, biology, agricultural science, home economics, music, art, Latin, and French. Students performed extravagant plays and musical recitals in the school auditorium featuring the best stage equipment and scenery. Sports were also an important part of school life. Although football was not played during the time she was in high school, baseball and basketball were very popular. In fact, Bessie played on the women’s basketball team during her years at BCI.
In the fall of 1918, Bessie and approximately 25 classmates entered their senior year at BCI with optimism and excitement. World War I was coming to a close and it appeared as if the Brewton area had dodged the Spanish Influenza outbreak that affected many parts of the country and world earlier in the year. The September 5, 1918 issue of The Brewton Standard proudly announced the opening exercises of the school session would be begin at 10:00 am on September 16 in the school auditorium. School administrators were hoping to attract many patrons and friends “as nothing inspires teachers and pupils like having a large crowd of ‘papas’ and ‘mamas’ out for the opening exercises of the school year.” Professor W.I. Powers led the school as superintendent with Mrs. Maggie McGowin serving as principal of the high school. The announcement also listed each of the teachers with the grade or subject taught for the coming year.
Students were less than three weeks into the school session before it came to an abrupt halt due to what was later classified as the second, more deadly wave of the Spanish Influenza. The October 3 issue of the Standard reported on an emergency meeting of the city school board held the previous evening at the request of the county and city health officer, Dr. L. B. Farish. Dr. Farish briefed members on the facts regarding the spread of Spanish Influenza in the area, and the board quickly acted to suspend school for one week. The next morning, Professor Powers met all students at the door, sending them home for an impromptu holiday. The health officer and town authorities requested that “children not be allowed to loaf on the streets as usual, but kept at home in order that this dread malady may be kept down as much as possible.”
Week after week, The Brewton Standard reported on the local cases of flu, naming residents who were ill and/or recovering. There were occasional reports of deaths of residents or former residents due to the flu. The October 17 issue stated, “The Standard will not even try to publish all the cases of ‘Flu’ in this city and section. While we are not suffering from the ravishes of this disease as are some sections, the Standard would look like a physician’s list if we gave the names of those who are confined to their homes with ‘Flu.’”
The initial one-week suspension of schools eventually grew to a full month. The October 31 Brewton Standard noted there were still scattered cases of flu within the school district, but the health authorities had determined the danger had largely passed. Therefore, Brewton Collegiate Institute would reopen on Monday, November 4. The city school board members were unanimous in their vote to pay teachers for the full time that schools were closed. The board and administration now had the task of determining how to make up the required work due to the loss of 22 school days. Although schools reopened, it seemed that some parents were reluctant to send their children back as attendance was reported to be small for the next month.
Reports of flu continued throughout the months of November and December. In fact, the December 5 issue of The Brewton Standard contained the public notice of a Spanish Influenza Ordinance passed by the Court of County Commissioners of Escambia County. The December 3 ordinance warned residents of the contagious nature of the disease. Provisions of the ordinance included 1) mandating that physicians report all cases daily to the county health officer, 2) requiring residents afflicted with the flu to be isolated in their own homes with a white card labeled ‘DANGER. SPANISH INFLUENZA. KEEP OUT’ placed in a conspicuous place, 3) prohibiting any persons from visiting or remaining in the room with afflicted persons, and 4) forbidding “all unnecessary assemblage of persons such as are accustomed to form at railway stations, the post-office and other public places.” Persons found violating these provisions were subject to a fine of up to $100 and/or imprisonment in the county jail for up to 30 days. Bessie’s father, James M. Padgett, served as a county commissioner at that time and he cast his vote in favor of the ordinance.
Cases of flu continued to be reported in Brewton into the early months of 1919. The school apparently remained open during this time, but there were many absences and no clear path forward for Bessie and her classmates. Finally, the January 30, 1919 issue of The Brewton Standard reported, “BCI Will Make Up All Lost Time.” The school board and superintendent decided against holding Saturday sessions or extending the end date of the school year, but opted instead for lengthening each school day by 70 minutes. For the remainder of the year, school would be in session from 8:15 am until 3:30 pm with a shorter, 55-minute lunch break. The administration noted “the adoption of this method of regaining some of the time lost last fall means that no child will fail to pass on account of the lost time, but those who do fail do so for only one reason – lack of proper study.” Bessie was sick for a total of six weeks, including a relapse, but she eventually made a full recovery. She later recounted that it took a lot of extra studying to catch up on missed work. Many of her friends and classmates, fearing they would not be able to complete all the required studies due to the school closure, decided to join the service, find employment, or go directly to college. Bessie’s future husband, Frank A. Luttrell, left for Emory Academy in Oxford, Georgia. Her best friend, Margaret Smith (later Mrs. Malcolm McMillan), departed Brewton after Christmas to enroll at Woman’s College of Alabama (later Huntingdon College). Earle Wilson, Sr. went to Alabama Polytechnic Institute (later Auburn University) and J.W. Adkisson, Jr. enrolled in the Gulf Coast Military Academy in Gulfport, MS.
Fortunately, the influenza eventually died out and the BCI Class of 1919 graduated with the same pomp and circumstance as previous classes. Brewton Collegiate Institute hosted the 29th annual commencement exercises on June 1-4, 1919. The four-day affair included a baccalaureate service, grammar school exercises, junior-senior play, musical recital, and high school graduation. Dr. George Lang of the University of Alabama addressed the graduates and Professor W. I. Powers presented their diplomas. Dorothy Smith gave the valedictory address and my grandmother, Bessie Padgett, read the class history as salutatorian. This was a source of great pride for my grandmother as she enjoyed reminding her family and friends that she was salutatorian of her class. Only later in the conversation would she admit there were only two students left in her class who had completed the required work to be able to graduate. She was both second and last in her graduating class.
Regardless of class rank, Bessie continued her education and enjoyed a successful teaching career totaling 45 years. Bessie left Brewton the next fall for the Alabama Technical Institute and College for Women (later University of Montevallo), where she graduated with a teaching certificate in 1922. She later attended summer school at Florida State University and the University of Alabama before returning to Montevallo in 1956 to complete her Bachelor of Science Degree in Home Economics. Bessie taught high school chemistry, algebra I & II, geometry, English, and home economics for 45 years in the public schools of Blountstown and Jay, Florida, and Thomasville, Opelika, East Brewton (W.S. Neal), and Brewton (T.R. Miller), Alabama. In 1970 Bessie retired from T.R. Miller High (the descendent of her beloved alma mater, BCI) after teaching Brewton girls of the 1950s and ‘60s the important skills of home economics and social graces.
-Article submitted by F. Alex Luttrell, III; June, 2020