May 2, 2008 -- "Saving St. Matthew School"

Two men walk through a jungle of overgrown foliage and vines. Marvin Toussaint, class of '64, and Elvin Shields, class of '67, have come back to their alma mater.

"It's a remorseful feeling," says Toussaint. "It's one mixed with deep regret, one mixed with shame and remorse--and always the question, why did this have to happen like this?"

A child's desk in the weeds tells the story of St. Matthew School. It's been 19 years since kids filled these classrooms, walked these paths or answered the bell. Weeds and ruin have taken over. St. Matthew opened in 1916 in the plantation country ten miles south of Natchitoches. It started as a church school in a time when education of African American children was ignored by just about everybody else in the rural south. The school board finally took over St. Matthew School in 1938. They paid a dollar for it, put up the high school in the early '50s.

"This was the only high school for Black kids in this region," Toussaint says. "The only other one was up in Natchitoches, the Central High School. There were no other schools."

Sharecroppers' kids from Melrose, Cloutierville and Natchez, LA, walked, boarded busses or rode mules to get to St. Matthew School. It was closed in 1989--out of sight, out of mind--and eventually in the weeds. Now old alumni like Elvin and Marvin are trying save what can be saved, restore what can be restored.

Marvin Toussaint says, "You cannot tell the story of Cane River without telling the story of St. Matthew School because of the important part that it played--not only in the lives of students, but as well as the teachers, but it represented the hopes and dreams of so many parents."

They hope to turn it into a community center, take it back from the weeds, give it back to the young.

The St. Matthew school restoration is being done through volunteer work, donations and grants. Their first goal is to have the high school gym reopened in a year and a half.