As Calvin Hawkins stood in the ruins of the Davidson School in Water Valley, Miss., on Saturday, May 21, 2022, he pointed to the houses across the street as a passing motorist waved at him.
“I went door-to-door,” Hawkins recounted. “I would ask anyone I could find about who they knew and their family’s story.”
Hawkins paused to wipe away the sweat running down his face as he stood in what was once the hallway of the burnt school. The fire stripped the building to its concrete base, leaving only the slab and concrete walls with openings where the classroom doors once were. Instead of desks and blackboards inside, rubble littered the floors.
“I went to school in this building until the fourth grade,” Hawkins said.
The Davidson School was an African American school in Water Valley. When it closed in 1970 following federally forced integration, the building became home to the newly named Water Valley Elementary School. The building has been closed since 1982 when the elementary school moved to a new location. The school building caught fire in August 2021, but the exact details of what started the flame are still unknown. Hawkins speculated that it was arson.
Since 2016, Hawkins has chased the history of places like the Davidson School and the people who inhabited them. Hawkins grew up in Water Valley. His father worked at the local factory, Borg-Warner, now called Solero Technologies.
“He made a good living,” Hawkins said of his father. However, the son wanted out of Water Valley, thinking he could find better opportunities in a bigger town.
After high school, Hawkins enrolled at Mississippi State University, majoring in educational psychology. He later worked for the admissions office at the University of Mississippi and eventually got a job in banking in Birmingham, Ala., but he moved back to Yalobusha County around 1997 to work in the educational-disabilities section of the Head Start program in Coffeeville.
In 2016, Hawkins, who serves as the pastor of the United Missionary Baptist Church in Coffeeville and is a member of the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, spoke at a Black History Month program at Pleasant Grove M.B. Church in Coffeeville in February 2017. Each year, speakers are invited to the church to present on a topic in Black history. Hawkins often heard presentations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, but he focused on local leaders during his presentation. As he spoke, he realized many in the community were unaware of the contributions of Black trailblazers within Yalobusha County.
“When was the first Black church in the county established? Who was the first slave sold in Water Valley?” Hawkins remembered wondering. “A lot of questions that nobody had answers to. We always hear about important figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but I wanted to know about the heroes here in Yalobusha County.”