Archived Story

Looking back at Laurel High

Published 10:19pm Friday, February 18, 2011

When the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., came down in 1954, the philosophy of “separate but equal” schools was deemed unconstitutional.

Although “segregation of white and negro children in the public schools of a state solely on the basis of race” was the opinion of the highest court in the land, the two separate school systems in Alexander City didn’t merge until 1971.

With that merger, Laurel High School – which actually served grades one through 12 – ceased to be and its older pupils became part of the Benjamin Russell High School student body. There were about 1,500 students at LHS – with about half of those in the high school grades.

From 1948 to 1970, LHS was the only institution of learning that children of color could attend. The only principal that the school had for its 22 years of operation is the same person that Nathaniel H. Stephens Elementary School is named after.

“We weren’t permitted to go to (the other public schools) at that time. I don’t know how many they had,” said the Rev. Alfred Cooper, a Hale County native who moved to Alexander City in 1955 to become the vocational agriculture teacher for LHS and for whom the Cooper Community Center is named. “When they completed the merger all of the high school was moved. All of the high school (students) went to Benjamin Russell. All of the junior high (students) went across the tracks to Alexander City Junior High (which is now Alexander City Middle School). We just kept the third and fourth-grade here.

“All of the third and fourth-graders in Alexander City came to the Stephens school. There was not another (school) that they could go to at that time.”

Jim Pearson Elementary started holding classes for kindergarten, first and second-grades, while Radney Elementary housed the fifth and sixth grades.

LHS, which was located within the same footprint where Stephens Elementary now stands, was originally a modest wooden structure on Laurel Street that was run by the Rev. Milton Nunn. Its classes were crowded with students. Nunn went to the city’s Board of Education for assistance but an issue of missing property documents kept them from being able to help because the board needed the school grounds deeded to them first. When the paperwork appeared via a town citizen named Lizzie Corprew, who was given the land titles by her husband, Elbert, another meeting was called with the educational board in the then-Carlisle’s Drug Store where the property was turned over to the city.

That first civically funded building was a brick structure that stood where Stephens Elementary is today. Known as Alexander City Colored School, it taught children only through the ninth grade. Between 1944 and 1946 grades 10, 11 and 12 were added one per year, though. Up until 1946 ACCS students who wanted to continue their education had to leave town to attend high school in places like Camp Hill, Sylacauga, Cottage Grove and Lafayette.

When LHS was born, Nathaniel H. Stephens was called in to be its principal. He was originally from Elmore County but lived in Montgomery. During the week he

he lived in a house adjacent to the school, but on the weekends and holidays he went back to the capital.

“Mr. Stephens was an educator, a very good one,” said Cooper. “He was a deacon in his church. He was a community person (and) he was thoroughly committed to educating boys and girls. If he was needed, he would be there.”

That commitment to education included him stressing to his educators that they should provide structure and a loving environment to the children in their charge. He also felt that a consistent connection to spirituality ought to be maintained.

According to Cooper, every Friday there was a mandatory assembly.

“He felt like the school should take time out for devotion and to sing,” he said.

LHS was a bit overcrowded. Even though there were about 35 teachers on staff, Cooper said that “it was nothing to have 35 (students) in a class” or sometimes even more.

Regardless of the skewed numbers, the kids of LHS got along for the most part and saw their school as more than just a place to learn back before the Information Age when there were few cars and no gadgets to keep everyone in touch and aware.

“Growing up as a child, going to school was the best time to me – mostly it was a meet-and-greet,” said A.J. Jones, the current Director of the Cooper Community Center and a member of the class of 1969, which was the next to last class to graduate from LHS. “As the only school that blacks went to, you got to see people who lived on the other side of town. It was the only chance to see them.

“The student body was a close-knit group. If you were a ninth grader or a 10th grader or whatever, you were close to everybody in your class.”

Organized athletics for the students included a track squad, a football team and a cheerleading crew, but it was basketball that they really rallied around. In 1962 the LHS Golden Hornets won the state basketball championship.

According to Jones, who played for the Golden Hornets in the mid to late 1960s, they nicknamed their gym “The Castle” because “we didn’t lose too many games there.” At the time, “The Castle” was one of the largest gyms in the state. Basketball was such the rage for the students that a class tournament was regularly held for grades seven through 12.

“I think they got a gymnasium the year before I came (in 1955),” said Cooper. “Before that, they played in what they called ‘(The) Matchbox.’ You couldn’t shoot nothing but line drives in it.”

For more than a decade, besides the teachers and coaches, Stephens was LHS’s only administrator on campus.

“For the most part, he never had an assistant named from the board (of education),” Cooper said. “He didn’t have a secretary. He didn’t have a treasurer or a bookkeeper. He didn’t have a school counselor, either. I think the last couple of years he got a secretary.”

Cooper stopped teaching vocational agriculture to become Stephens’ first assistant principal. Cooper was second in command for the last two years of the school’s existence and then first principal at the newly integrated ACJH, a post he held until 1983.

Among the many hats that Stephens wore were those of the school’s hall monitor, security and disciplinarian. He was known for having a distinctively booming voice, which came in handy – especially in the halls of LHS when he would call a student out for acting up.

“If you got out of line he had that paddle,” said Jones. “He’d put it on you (and) you’d straighten right up.”

When the merger occurred, Stephens went on to work for the same entity that years before had tapped him to become the principal of LHS. He was the Alexander City Board of Education’s first administrative employee of color.

“(Stephens) was the first black to work in the central office as an (assistant superintendent). They (already) had janitors and things like that,” said Cooper.

The dissolution of Laurel High in 1970 resulted in the first fully integrated class of BRHS in 1971. At least for the first six years, Cooper paid attention to the goings-on at the high school and noticed that the multicolored union presented very little problems. By the time integration actually happened many of the students had known or known of each other for years.

“We had a smooth transition,” Cooper said. “We had a few bumps and bruises but nothing major.

“Then (BRHS) just rolled on and went from there.”