Officals looking to preserve school writer Alice Walker attended

Putnam County officials are hoping someone will preserve the Butler-Baker School, a historic black school where “The Color Purple” author Alice Walker became valedictorian in 1961.

“We’re asking people to put out a proposal on hopefully saving the building,” said Superintendent Jim Willis. “We don’t want to lose that history there.”

From a real estate perspective, the vintage school from the mid-1950s could be a good deal. It sits on about 22 acres on the border between Eatonton and unincorporated Putnam County. It’s also received nearly $1 million in renovations in recent years, including roofing, heating and air conditioning systems, restrooms and a lunchroom.

But Willis said the real value is incalculable because of its history. He said he’s received four or five phone calls from people hoping to work with the former school, which includes a 63,584-square-foot main building and a separate warehouse. He’s heard of a proposal to use the school for community-focused organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity and a food bank. Final proposals won’t be known until bids are opened in mid-November.

Melvin Bishop, president of the local NAACP branch and a 1966 graduate of the school, bristles at the idea that the school could be sold to the highest bidder. He said he’s heard a homebuilder is interested in the property. He said a better use would be to preserve the building, in part, as a museum.

“I just don’t want that building to be torn down, where we’d lose all our history, our values,” Bishop said. “People got stuff they’re already collecting to put in the museum, so our children, our grandchildren can walk through and see what we’ve accomplished. If you tear that down, you’re going to lose all that. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

The school board is reserving the right to reject any and all bids.

Bishop said he’s working on a proposal to turn the school into a job training center as well as a farmer’s market, health-care center for pregnant teens and offices for nonprofits.

Bishop said the school opened in 1956 as an all-black facility teaching first grade through high school. The Putnam County school system ended teaching there about a decade ago when it was an elementary school. It was used just last year as a Head Start school. Willis said the only remaining tenant in the Butler-Baker school is Family Connection, a nonprofit collaborative group aiming to help families and children.

Willis said the school system hopes to find a good buyer to keep the school as part of the community. The school system no longer has a use for it, he said.

“It’s costing us money every day, and we don’t have kids in it,” he said.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.