By Taylor McKay Hathorn
Closing in on six decades after it first opened, with scores of history and memories, countless students and multiple generations of educators having graced its campus, Lovett Elementary School still stands proudly on a hill on Northside Drive, now boasting a facelift that was specifically designed to be in keeping with its original façade.
On April 12, 1964, members of the Lovett community in east Clinton kept on their Sunday best after church. After all, the dedication of Lovett Elementary School was at three o’clock that afternoon, and the opening of the elementary school signaled a new beginning for area youth.
The federal order that mandated the integration of public schools was still six years away, and Lovett Elementary School, which was originally part of the Hinds County School District, served an all-Black student population, a fact that was not lost on James Graves, Jr., now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.
“I knew that everybody there was Black, like me,” the Obama appointee recalled. “But one of the things about segregation was that all of the Black teachers were at Black schools. It was the only place they could be.”
Graves said that this slight towards Black educators benefitted him and the rest of his peers in Lovett’s inaugural class.
“We had absolutely the best teachers,” he said, citing his own fifth grade teacher, Pearl Latham, as the school’s very best.
Latham, who died only a few years ago at the age of 104, enrolled young Graves in local spelling bees, driving him to compete against other scholars from the area.
“My sixth-grade year, the spelling bee was supposed to be divided into two different [contests], based on age,” Graves said. “They made us all spell in the same bee instead.” Twelve-year old Graves eventually defeated an eleventh grader in the championship round, and, when school officials went backstage to retrieve the trophy, they instead found two trophies, at last realizing that there should have been two separate contests.
“Ms. Latham said, ‘You made him spell against everybody, so you have to give him both trophies,’” Graves recalled with a laugh.
Latham submitted the photo of Graves clutching both trophies to the local newspaper, and, when it was published, she quietly clipped the article. Forty years later, Latham passed Graves the clipping when he was sworn in to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
“It had a profound impact on me,” Graves said of the gesture. “My mother passed away in 2016. She couldn’t talk about Ms. Latham without tearing up, because she was so dedicated.” Latham’s devotion to her bright pupil was tireless, as she continued to drive him to spelling bees around the city, despite his mother’s trepidation over what he might wear to the contests, as he only had a single pair of pants at the time.
“My parents poured a lot of love into me, but they didn’t go to college,” Graves reflected. “They didn’t understand semester hours, but they wanted me to get an education. The people [at school] made sure I got it and made sure I finished. A lot of credit goes to those people, and a lot of that happened at Lovett.”
Although Graves would transfer to a private school after finishing sixth grade at Lovett, the school’s story continued, with the newly-formed Clinton Public School District annexing the school in 1981. According to Clinton historian Dr. Walter Howell, Jackson’s annexation of the Presidential Hills neighborhood resulted in a significant loss of Black students for the District, which was already under pressure due to a 1977 federal lawsuit that claimed that the District’s departure from the Hinds County school system had “impeded integration efforts.”
The federal argument was based in fact, with the suburb’s Black population hovering around 5%. After the Lovett and Sumner Hill schools were brought into the District, the total increased to 20%, and, rather than allowing the District to fall prey to the de-facto segregation that plagued other largely-white school districts, then-Superintendent Virgil Belue elected to transform Clinton’s public schools by dividing students by grade rather than by neighborhoods, meeting with Black parents to reassure them that their students would be welcomed at the school, though naysayers in the community egged Belue’s home in response.
Belue’s vision of moving beyond neighborhood schools holds true today, with Lovett Elementary School playing host exclusively to sixth-grade students. At the present, Lovett enrolls over 400 such students, with minority populations comprising around 60% of the school’s student body, a dramatic increase from the 20% on the rosters immediately following the annexation of Lovett and Sumner Hill.
Recently, Lovett had yet another new beginning, as the Clinton Public School District recently completed construction that included four classrooms, intended to reduce existing class sizes and to allow for the creation of another “team,” as Lovett presently divides its students into four teams. The school’s library-media center also received an extensive renovation, with two conference rooms added to the existing structure in order to provide designated space for parent-teacher conferences, which had previously been held in classrooms or offices due to a lack of space.
The most noticeable change to the decades-old structure were cosmetic improvements at the entryway, though architects were careful to maintain the traditional image of Lovett Junior High School, an image that Black Clintonians would have seen on a spring afternoon more than fifty years before, as they applauded the construction of a school that would serve the community’s children.
Though many Mississippi public schools are still beleaguered by de-facto segregation, the newest sixth grade class entered Lovett Elementary School on August 11, 2021, beneath the banner of a new state flag that proclaimed to them what Virgil Belue had promised Black parents forty years earlier: this can – and should – be a school for everyone.