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Legacy of Neylandville's St. Paul School Continues

Nov 11, 2020

Neylandville isn’t the most renowned of Northeast Texas communities, but its legacy to the region is bigger than its small population might suggest. The region’s university recently named its library after a Neylandville local.

On Aug. 21, Texas A&M University-Commerce announced a name change for the library. The formerly named Gee Library, named after university president James Gilliam Gee, would be renamed the Velma K. Waters Library.

Velma Waters became the first undergraduate African American student to enroll at East Texas State College (now A&M-Commerce) in 1964 following desegregation. Waters had a lot of ties to the local community; she spent a lot of time on campus with her father who worked for East Texas State. Waters was educated at the St. Paul’s School in Neylandville a school and a community with history stretching back to the Civil War.

Neylandville is located in Hunt County between Commerce and Greenville. Neylandville traces it history back to James Brigham, an enslaved man who purchased his freedom and established a freedman’s community in 1863. According to A&M-Commerce professor Dr. Shannon Carter, the community was created to “take in black children who were orphaned during the Civil War.”

The community expanded adding a general store, a cotton gin, with the residents forming a farmers co-op. One of the most influential additions though was the St. Paul School. The trustees and superintendent of St. Paul were all African Americans. The school complex included classroom buildings, a gymnasium, and a teacherage (teacher housing).

The school, a K-12 institution, and was renowned for its service to the local African American community. Bus service would travel several hours throughout the local area to bring students to school. The school not only offered a standard education but also offered vocational training being one of the only schools in the area that offered such training, prior to the 1940s.    

St. Paul’s School consolidated with Commerce School District in 1965. Most of the buildings were sold and moved offsite in the subsequent years. The lone remaining building was the home economics structure which became a community center for Neylandville. This building was replaced by a new structure in 1999 which serves as the community center today.

The site of St. Paul’s today is a quiet community center. A playground and picnic grounds sit on the location where so many African American students obtained a quality education. Regarding the Neylandville community the community had a population of over 200 in 1954 but by 2000 that population had fallen to around 56 and fluctuated ever since.

The St. Paul’s School and the Neylandville community are examples of overcoming adversity and the power that can be provided by education. These are just the kind of stories you will hear when you travel the Backroads of Northeast Texas.