The historically black schools in Athens, like the rest of the South, often weren’t very well built or properly maintained, and they were located on less than ideal sites: Students and teachers at North Athens Elementary School encountered the unpleasant odor from the nearby poultry plant; Lyons elementary was near the airport and a rock quarry – classroom windows had to stay closed to keep out flying rocks and noise.
“Once integration came, they closed all four of our elementary schools and they were going to turn our high school into a parking lot,” said Valdon Daniel, retired principal of Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School and 1965 graduate of Burney-Harris High School.
The unique experiences of black students in the 1950s and ’60s, during the transition from segregation to integration, are core memories of this segment of the Boom generation. Local African-American Boomers are working to inform current and future students, both black and white, of this proud heritage.
More Than A School
In 1956, the all black Athens High and Industrial School (AHIS) moved into a new brick building on the Dearing Street extension, beginning the building’s decades-long history that continues today. During segregation, “training” and “industrial” were often part of the names of black schools so in 1964, the community requested it be changed to honor two respected educators instead – Mrs. Annie H. Burney and Professor Samuel F. Harris, becoming Burney-Harris High School (BHHS).
“We couldn’t use other facilities like restaurants or hotels so we had all of our school activities here,” recalled Elizabeth Platt, a 1967 graduate. The cafeteria and gymnasium were well used by the community as well, and trophy cases lined the hallways and lobby.
“We love that building,” said Daniel. “We had wonderful teachers – education was in our blood. We heard it every day, ‘Better yourself.’ ”
After Athens High School (all white) and Burney-Harris merged to become Clarke Central High School in 1970, Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School was created in the former Burney-Harris High building.
So it was disturbing to Daniel when, in 1995, as principal of the middle school then being moved to Tallassee Road, he found photos and trophies from the high school in the trash. It was around that time also that the AHIS/BHHS Alumni Association was created to begin organizing all-class reunions.
“We got a better quality of education,” said Charlie Maddox, vice president of the 2016 reunion committee. “But it had unintended consequences. After we marched and fought for equality, we thought integration was it. We got better schools and equipment – we didn’t want to remember the shabby.”
After the middle school was moved out of the old high school building, the building was closed. Later it was used intermittently for the district’s computer services, as an alternative school, and finally it was going to be torn down and turned into a parking lot in 2006.
It was the impending loss of the old high school that galvanized the community and led to the formation of a heritage committee to preserve the building and collect memorabilia, photographs and trophies.
It took three tax referenda and an additional school district allocation to gather the $21.5 million needed to renovate the building and for new construction to form the H.T. Edwards Teaching and Learning Center, consisting of the Career Academy, an Early Learning Center, the Boys & Girls Club, a gymnasium and ACC Board of Education offices.
“It was a fight,” recalled Daniel. “But now it’s the most used building in the system.”
For the past 20 years, graduates of AHIS/BHHS have gathered in Athens every two years to celebrate their unique educational heritage. This past summer, more than 250 people from as far away as Hawaii and California came back to see and hug each other and remember shared experiences.
They gathered in the Elizabeth King Gymnasium, renovated in 2011 and named in honor of the girls’ basketball coach and beloved teacher, now 98 and still singing in her church choir. They all enjoyed three days of dinner, dancing and just catching up – like any high school reunion – well, almost.
Maddox chuckled, remembering when he brought his now 47-year-old daughter to one of their earlier reunions. She looked around and asked him, in all seriousness, “where are all the white people?”
“We can’t go back and change things,” Charles Stroud, retired history teacher and president of the alumni association remarked. “But we can correct as we go.” This year, in fact, three of the alumni scholarship recipients who are descendants of former students will attend Georgia Tech, the Savannah College of Art and Design and Mississippi State University.
Education is in their blood.
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I was at Burney Harris in my 9th and 10-grade years.