In 1951 in the midst of segregation, African-American students in Walker County had a new opportunity to advance their education with the construction of Hill High School — the first and only all-African-American high school in Walker County.
When two Hill High School graduates heard about the plans to build new duplex-style housing at the site of their old school, they felt compelled to visit what remains of their old halls of learning in hopes of immortalizing a place that was so very dear to them.
More than just a school
Hill High School opened in the fall of 1951 on land given to the Walker County school board by the Baptist Association with the condition that it be made into a school.
An Aug. 8, 1951 letter from then-superintendent F. D. Leake thanked the Baptist Association for the gift and stated that the school, at its opening, would contain four classrooms, an office, two storage rooms, a clinic, boys’, girls’ and teachers’ bathrooms, a janitor room and a steam heating plant. Planned expansions would add an auditorium/gymnasium, lunch room, home economics room, science room and more classrooms.
Though Walker County had a small handful of designated African-American elementary schools at the time, there was no high school. At the corner of Culberson Ave. and Steele St. in the Linwood community, the newly minted Hill High School was convenient to some, but not all, and many students had long bus rides each school day.
Maxine Suttles Cousin, whose family lived on the north end of the county, beared a 90-minute bus ride each way every day to get to the one high school where she was allowed to go.
To make up for the distances some had to travel and because of the segregated nature of the school, a sense of community sprung up around Hill High School that Cousin and her classmate Alma Jean Suttles Benton, both 1963 Hill High School graduates, remember fondly.
“It was like a little village,” Cousin said. “It was like home.”
Benton was a tomboy in her youth and played on the school’s football team as a quarterback, right alongside the boys. Known as one of “The Three Stooges” by her teachers, Cousin was a social girl and rarely seen without the company of her two best friends.
“They were like family,” she said.
Cousin remembers fondly how, when she didn’t have money to go to the school’s social events, one teacher would always find a way to help her earn what she needed.
“My French teacher, Ms. Washington, would let me iron her clothes for her so I could go to the sock hop or whatever,” she said.
Teachers lived in small houses provided for them near the school. Many local families’ children attended the school. The sense of community was strong, something from a bygone era, she said.
Also strong was the emphasis on learning. Though friendly and familial, the teachers and administrators also made sure to be strict disciplinarians and instill a strong work ethic in their student charges.
“The principal was like the daddy, and the teachers were like the mamas, and you were chest-high then, and you never wanted your teacher to go home with you,” Benton laughed. “They would make you want to learn; they would make you feel like you had to learn.”
Unlike Cousin, Benton attended an elementary school in the same community and knew many of the teachers, parents and other students throughout her school days.
Benton recalled one tragic event in her fourth-grade year when her teachers showed just how deep their care for the students went.
“My house burned down,” she said.
Benton was at school when she noticed smoke billowing from her family’s house, which was only a block or so away.
“I was standing at the window, staring at it,” she said. Benton had no idea whether or not her family was safe and had nowhere to go when school was over, so her teacher, a woman she remembered as Ms. Nance, took her home.
Benton’s family was well, though their belongings had all been destroyed, a particularly devastating thought to a 10-year-old girl who suddenly finds herself with just the clothes on her back.
“The next day, we had a glee club,” Benton remembers, an extracurricular activity to which she had been looking forward. “Ms. Nance took me to the store and bought fabric” to make a new skirt, she said, “and the other teachers pitched in and bought a white blouse and got me shoes.”
In 1968, as desegregation swept through Walker County, Hill High School disbanded, and the building became the first LaFayette Junior High School, an integrated school for both African-Americans and whites.
In 1973, the school burned; arson is highly suspected, as three other schools are reported to have burned the same week. Though not completely destroyed, the building was no longer used as a school and was sold to a private owner.
“It never should have been sold,” Walker County historian Raymond Evans said. “It should have been given back to the Baptist Association.”
Now, what’s left of Hill High School is mostly rubble; a single brick wall still stands among an overgrown patch of crumbled concrete foundations strangled by head-high weeds.
As they ride around the old neighborhood, Cousin and Benton can’t help but point out places that conjure up old memories — dilapidated houses that were once her teachers’ homes, a corner lot that once held a small soda and candy shop for students.
“I was about to cry when I left,” said Cousin, after seeing the state of the remains. “Anyone who had the power to change that just ignored it, and it burned me up ‘cause it was given to us. The neighborhood has been deliberately neglected.”
Cousin blames the dilapidation of the area on political red-lining.
Now, with the LaFayette Housing Authority having just purchased the property, the two women are hopeful that pieces of their near-forgotten history can be re-awakened. They hope to speak with the housing authority and request that the site bear, at least, some sort of plaque recognizing it as the location of the first and only African-American high school in Walker County.
“It should have interpretive signs comparable to what the Chattooga Academy has,” Evans said.
Benton and Cousin, as well as many of their friends and former classmates, still have many of their mementos from their school days and are hopeful that a place for them can be found in or around the housing authority’s new buildings.
Ruth Bass, director of the LaFayette Housing Authority, said that although she hasn’t yet heard of any former students’ hopes for a memorial, the idea can definitely be implemented in the construction plans.
“I certainly would love to talk with them about the history,” she said. “I’m sure we could come up with a plaque or a memorial or something. That shouldn’t be a problem.”
At the dead end of Foster Circle in LaFayette, the housing authority is tearing down four, two-story buildings that for many years have been unsafe and unpopular with residents. The new building plan, which is being put out to bid within the next two weeks, calls for energy-efficient, duplex-style buildings, some of which will be built on Foster Circle; others will be constructed at the old Hill High School site.
Evans believes that the history should be remembered, not just because Hill High School was an African-American landmark in the county, but also because the school and its students were so successful.
“The percentage of kids who finished this school and went on and finished college was probably higher than the white schools,” Evans said.
The 18 students in the Hill High School graduating class of 1963 went on to become teachers and nurses, real estate agents and police officers and to work in the automotive industry, the transportation industry and private business, among other occupations. One graduate became a minister, and another joined the Air Force. Though the graduating class may seem small compared to schools today, it was the largest Hill High graduating class to date.
As Cousin and Benton trek through the weeds, they point out what they can decipher of the old school’s layout. A small patch of broken tile is the girls’ restroom. A concrete slab is the workshop, which turned out high-quality trophy cases and cabinets. What remains of the gymnasium abuts a solitary brick wall encased in graffiti.
“It had to come through a lot of sacrifice,” Cousin said. “It needs to be remembered.”
An echo of the school’s song, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” escapes their lips as the two leave the lot. They laugh at some distant memory. Even if the history of the school is buried under upcoming construction, even if no memorial should be erected, they know how special the place was.
They have not forgotten.