The history of school buildings and general education in the Choctaw Nation is often hard to track. While the brick school pictured was, in fact, the first public school in Talihina, it was not the first school, nor was it the first school designed solely for the purpose of education as some scholars write. By conservative estimate, it was at least the fifth building in Talihina to serve as a school.
Many of the earliest schools in our area were, of course, Mission Schools or small schoolhouses that focused on the “Three R’s” (Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic). Several of these places were within a 10 mile radius of our future town such as the Lennox Mission, Wadesville, Green Hill and Dukes Schoolhouse to name a few. The strong Choctaw leadership in the area through men such as Alfred Wade, Gilbert Wesley Dukes and Captain John Anderson sought not only to educate their children but to also give them the best opportunity to succeed in an ever changing world.
When Talihina was founded in 1887, it already had schools within walking distance but the growing settlement would need a larger school, and one that accepted the growing number of white, non-intermarried settlers.
As early as the 1880s there were two Choctaw schools either inside of present-day Talihina city limits or within five miles, the first being Tvli-Bok (Choctaw meaning Rock Creek) which allowed the white children of the area to attend for a small fee. The first of those children were the descendants of Thomas “Vin” Lawson, the first white man allowed to settle in Kiamichi Valley. Contemporary reports place this school on “Choctaw Hill” which is on or near where the Old Talihina Cemetery is today. The earliest recorded teacher here was Abner Wilson in 1880.
The second school, about four miles east of Talihina was the Rock Creek Schoolhouse during the 1880 and 1890s led by Professor Haney and Rev B. Epps . Bearing the same name but in two different languages, it’s easy to differentiate between the two because several non-Choctaw settlers would call the Tvli-Bok school “Tallie Bookie” in later interviews about early pioneer history. It is also worth noting that Rock Creek is a body of water that is separate from the Rock Creek near the Red Oak community who also had their own Rock Creek school.
Throughout this time the one-room school houses were used to educate those who were spread out across the country side. Community leaders from white, Choctaw and Freedmen backgrounds all conferred that teaching in remote areas was a large barrier. Many students simply did not have the transportation or ability to spare time from their farms to educate themselves. Religious organizations and often families of wealth supplemented this by constructing small neighborhood schools like the previously mentioned Dukes and Wade schoolhouses, both named after prominent Choctaw leaders in the area.
In 1891 the Choctaws created their most ambitious educational laws to date under the leadership of Chief Wilson Jones, creating three elite Academies for members of the Choctaw Nation: Jones Academy located in Heartshorne, Tuskahoma Female Seminary located in Tuskahoma and lastly the Tushkalusa Academy in Talihina. The schools were to be completed in time for the 1892 school year, and they were.
Tushkalusa no doubt showed the settlers already living in Talihina that a higher education for their children (and a building for that purpose) was required. Aside from small missionary schools with puncheon floors and one or two teachers, there was no higher education available in the area. Truly an imposing structure, Tushkalusa was a three story all-black co-ed boarding school within walking distance of the town. Prior to its creation, Chief Wilson Jones described his vision for the academy to be a high-school.
More than the simple “Three Rs”, Tushkalusa offered Reading, Arithmetic, Geography, Spelling, Writing and Phonics. Evidence from the school suggests that there was even a “Preparatory” grade for students in their final year of attendance. At least two of the students became certified educators within a year of leaving the school. Tushkalusa was a cut above the rest, teaching subjects tailored to each student’s age group and capacity to learn. One of the most striking records still existing from the school is a petition from dozens of families to expand its occupancy.
It wasn’t more than two years later that the citizens of Talihina had their first school that was publicly available and made by the leadership of the new town. It came in the form of the Talihina Graded School and ran from about 1894 to 1895 under the direction of Principal H. P. Mabry, a Choctaw-certified educator. Instead of constructing a building for this purpose, it was conducted in the upstairs addition of the Talihina Presbyterian Church, then named the John Thomas Memorial Church.
That school was only open for two terms but was the beginning of an endless pursuit for higher education to serve Talihina’s children and provide them the means to move upward. There were around 70 regularly enrolled students for both years that it was active. It is worth noting that while the term “White or Settler” may be used to describe many of the students and families in Talihina at that time, a large percentage would later be original Dawes Enrollees through Intermarried Status.
The school seems to have lost consistent funding and suffered fatal organizational difficulties as it closed at the end of its second term, in 1895.
Post 1896, the burden of schooling Talihina’s children was then transferred to the Methodists where the Methodist Sunday School helped keep alive the possibility of education in the area. Throughout this time, the smaller schoolhouses that were privately run and funded by tuition and donation continued to educate.
The Methodist Sunday School did continue to teach children, however after a short period of time it was no-longer organized or taught by certified teachers or principals. Tushkalusa Academy was forever closed in the fall of 1899. Talihina’s hopes for a permanent public school were dashed for nearly another decade.
The only written evidence found of a large and publicly available school in Talihina until statehood are from Talihina Day School. This Choctaw-funded school was identified through surviving rosters of the 1904 and 1905 school year. The trustee of the school was John Jay Thomas, and the school taught around 110 students who were Choctaw and white. A specific location or structure is not known for this school.
There were no Choctaw Freedmen or “Colored” students noted at the Talihina Day School but around the same time there is mention of a “Colored Day School” being conducted within about 5 miles outside of Talihina. No records have been found of this establishment.
In 1907, when statehood allotted funds for school construction in our community, a solid, permanent location was made for the education of Talihina’s children. While none of these buildings exist today, the Presbyterian, Methodist and 1907 school buildings were all replaced with more modern buildings that are still in use under their original purpose.
As the Tvli-Bok school is now the location of a cemetery it is used to honor the lives and legacies of many educators and students alike who have found their final resting place in the location of this old Indian Territory school house.