By Charles Tisdale
JA Publisher (1978–2007)
Dec. 26, 1991 – Jan. 1, 1992
Athens, Alabama, is located near the Tennessee border in northern Alabama. It is situated squarely on the intersection of U.S. Highway 72 and 31. U.S. Highway 31 is, ironically, called the “bee line” highway because of its meandering route as it winds its way from the Alabama Gulf Coast to the Canadian border.
Athens is, also, situated near the confluence of the Elk and Tennessee Rivers. As an early protégé of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Athens has abandoned agriculture as the basic industry, being thrust into the atomic and space age by the nearby NASA base at Huntsville, and the Brownsferry Nuclear Center, located some ten miles from the Athens city limits.
Athens received its name because of the establishment, in colonial times, of a wilderness school for women, Athens Female College. Thus, like its Hellenic predecessor, Athens was known as a center of culture and learning, if taken from the perspective of the only persons able to avail themselves of its intellectual blessings: white females.
Signs erected by the Athens Chamber of Commerce proudly proclaim “Welcome to Athens, Alabama, Garden Spot of the Tennessee Valley, Ideal Industrial Sites Available.”
Historically, however, Limestone County, of which Athens is the county seat, has proved less than a “garden spot.” Over one hundred years after the Civil War was ended, no educational facilities beyond the sixth grade level were provided by the city for its Black citizens. Historically, too, Athens was the epicenter of an area of intense racial conflicts, some of which are evident to this day.
The infamous Scottsboro case took place less than thirty miles from Athens in Madison County. Madison County was the setting for the television drama “Judge Horton.” The television drama was about the judge who tried to deal fairly with the “Scottsboro boys” but was subsequently banished and ostracized by his peers. Just to the South of Athens is Cullman, which is, astonishingly, the home of Alabama’s most liberal former governor “Kissing Jim” Folsom. It is also the home of William Bradford Huie, the anti-Klan writer. Cullman is best known, however, for a sign which stretched, for many, many years, across its main street: “Nigger read and run. If you can’t read, just run.”
Such signs and such open racism are symptomatic of the covert racism, which has pervaded this part of the country. On the courthouse steps at Athens, Handy Ellis, who would two years later, along with Strom Thurmond, lead the Southern states out of Democratic Party ranks, debated the then Alabama Agricultural Commissioner, Jim Poole, on the ethics of “race mixing.”
Jim Poole, who claimed he had “six hundred niggers” working for him on his farm in South Alabama, questioned the qualifications of Ellis on the race question, since Handy Ellis was “only a corporate attorney for the Alabama Power Company.” Neither won; “Kissing Jim” did.
A Black child, growing up in the elementary school system in Athens, received a full dose of indoctrination about the inherent inferiority of Black people in general. Along with the story of “Little Black Sambo,” Black children were taught poetry, which in its racial context, would have given Adolph Hitler pause:
Along the rows of cotton fields,
The Negroes move and sing,
They love to chop the cotton plants,
All shining in the spring.
And when the long hot summer days,
Slip over one by one,
They pull their cotton sacks along,
And chuckle in the sun.
This is just one example of the denigrating experience to which Black children were subjected in the Athens Public Schools. There were others: Julia Tutwiler’s “Alabama, Alabama, we will aye be true to thee” was required to be memorized by every Black child in the Athens Public School system.
There was one redeeming feature for the Black child in Athens, growing up in this sea of racism. It was Trinity High School, founded in 1867 by three Northern white abolitionist women.
Trinity stood as a singular beacon in the world of racial darkness. With the single possible exception of Talladega College, at another level, Trinity was, perhaps, the only such educational light in the state of Alabama.
As an institution founded by the American Missionary Association, which in turn was organized to fight the arrest and imprisonment of a group of captive Africans who had subdued their captors aboard the slave ship Amistad. The patron hero at Trinity was Cinque, the African prince who led that slave revolt.
By the summer of 1941, Trinity was a highly respected educational institution for Black youth. A new principal, Dr. Jay Talmadge Wright, has assumed the leadership role at the school, with a new educational plan called “functional education” as his guiding principle.
To implement this new system of education, Wright hired a staff of competent academicians. The teachers were inspired by Wright’s zeal to push forward the theory of “learning by doing.”
Among these new instructors was a young Japanese music teacher, Dr. Tyosho Matsumoto. The new instructors included, also, Dr. John A. Buggs, who later headed the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and Dr. Charles Fancher, who later headed Fesenden Academy at Martin, Florida; the noted sociologist Dr. Marion Campfield, Dr. Charles S. Johnson, Fisk University, and the social historian E. Franklin Frazier were among the lecturers who visited the Trinity campus.
In the fall of 1941, with Christmas approaching, Dr. Matsumoto began to plan a Christmas pageant to be presented on the day before school was recessed for Christmas holidays. Among the songs he taught to the choir was “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
But on December 7th, Japanese warplanes bombarded Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.
That Trinity would be affected by the conflict, there could be no doubt. The nature of Trinity’s involvement became known, however, when one day during mid-afternoon, speeding cars loaded with local and federal law-enforcement officials entered onto Trinity’s campus with sirens sounding, Arrested was Dr. Matsumoto, because he was Japanese, and Dr. Fredrick Charles McLaughlin, a jolly Irishman who was dubbed a Communist by arresting officials.
Though many of Trinity’s students did not know what a Communist was, the whole community and student body were deeply shocked by the arrests.
Plans to hold the Christmas pageant were continued, though the hearts of neither students nor faculty were really into holding the pageant.
The night of the pageant, with the whole Black community in attendance, the effort to stage the pageant was begun. As each Christmas carol was sung, the choir became more tearful, until shortly before the singing of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” the whole chorus was in tears. Striving to endure through just one more song, the baton had been barely lifted by the substitute director, when into the crowded hall walked Dr. Matsumoto. With all of his usual aplomb, he continued to the stage, raising his tiny white baton, leading the choir into “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Dr. Matsumoto had, through intervention of friends at the American Missionary Association, been released from the Japanese internship camp. Nothing was ever heard from Dr. Frederick Charles McLaughlin again.
That was a joyous Christmas for members of the Trinity community. It occurred a long time ago, when there was a great commitment to Black causes and institutions. A few years later, Trinity was absorbed by the Athens City school system and closed shortly thereafter.
Some of the graduates of Trinity include Dr. C. Eric Lincoln, Eugene Pincham, Dr. Floyd Farrel, Dr. Earline Farrell, Dr. Bernice Allen Reeves, and Charles Tisdale, publisher of the Jackson Advocate.