Influential Cypress Grove delivered opportunities not before known

Published 12:06 am Wednesday, April 15, 2015

From a historic viewpoint, Cypress Grove High School had a brief but meaningful existence.

As a high school — founded by Mrs. B.E. Winbush — it lasted from 1947 to 1969, when it ceased being an African-American high school due to the changes brought about by racial integration. Prior to 1947, it was an elementary school.

B.E. Winbush, Clifford Roberts and Julius Derbigny served as school leaders at Cypress Grove High School, which had a short but extremely important run in St. James Parish from 1947 to 1969.

B.E. Winbush, Clifford Roberts and Julius Derbigny served as school leaders at Cypress Grove High School, which had a short but extremely important run in St. James Parish
from 1947 to 1969.

As a high school in Lutcher, its “catchment area” extended up the river from Lutcher to the Central/Union area. Down river, it included Gramercy.

In the mid-40s (after World War II) the need was great for a high school in the area to service the higher educational aspirations of the growing African-American community. There already were elementary schools, both public and private (religious,) but their graduates had nowhere to go within reasonable traveling distance.

Cleo Marshall-Eugene, an area resident who went on to graduate Xavier University in New Orleans and later taught in the elementary school said, “My friends and I had to catch the Greyhound bus every  morning on the River Road to go to high school in Reserve, and if we missed the bus, we had to hitchhike.” She went on to say “The bus passed our stop (several miles from our house) at 5 a.m. and returned at 7 p.m. to that same stop and never left the River Road.”

The other more acceptable alternative was to have a close relative living elsewhere, preferably New Orleans, and go to live with them. The least attractive alternative (when the bus failed) was to catch the “sugar cane workers truck” and get dropped off near the school.

Another former student, Mrs. Mayola Traveler-Beverely, now living in California, back for a reunion, tearfully stated to WWL-TV News, “No one knows what we had to go through, the children had to bring wood for the fire on cold days.”

With the major exception of the sugar mill, the area was primarily a rural one, and the main occupation in the extended area was farming. One student, who later became a prominent politician, was often teased in school about “having to leave school early to make sure the cow made it home.”

Jobs, as we know them today, including the many plants currently in St. James Parish, were scarce to say the least.

This was basically the scene at the coming of Mrs. Winbush as principal of the “New” high school. A stern no-nonsense disciplinarian, (as a former student I’m first to say we needed it), a consummate politician with a head for business and networking, she gave life and spirit to the school.

The late Rev. Gordon, a leader in his own right, graduated elementary school around 1939 and had to move to New Orleans to even see a high school that he could attend, had this to say about her: “She was real strict and kept everybody in line, the teachers as well as the students. She was strictly a disciplinarian.”

She had to have been all of that and more. She struggled to make it on a meager budget. Economically, she graciously accepted the used books, used sports equipment and used and broken musical instruments from Lutcher High and she made it all work.

With the used books and hand picked teachers, she laid the groundwork for the education and creation of four Ph.D.s, numerous elected officials, teachers, ministers of the Gospel and other careers too numerous to count.

Athletically, the used sports equipment (under the late William Breda as coach) equipped a group that became state football champions of their division in 1953, and the broken band equipment (under the late music teacher Morris Sweetwyne) was used to familiarize hundreds of students with the world of music and sent many off to musical careers.

Through it all, the school created economic opportunity by employing teachers, cooks, janitors and bus drivers, not to mention buying food and other supplies locally. In addition town residents were able to rent out their “extra” rooms five days a week to teachers who lived elsewhere.

But the real payoff came in the creation of hundreds of high school graduates (19 classes) who became an eligible workforce for the many employers who came to the area later or who went on to higher education as their circumstances permitted.

In 2004 and again in 2014, more than 500 of her former students returned from 18 states and 50 cities outside Louisiana and 24 cities within the state to acknowledge her and the school she founded for contributing to their lives and careers. (Unfortunately she never saw these accolades. She died June 13, 1983, after a long illness).

Over time the school had three principals: Founder and first principal Mrs. B.E. Winbush from 1947 until 1962, Mr. Clifford Roberts from 1962-1967 and Mr. Julius Derbigny from 1967 until 1969.

— Truman Jacques graduated from Cypress Grove High School in 1955.