There is a core of something stronger than bricks and mortar that runs through the building at 296 East Howe Street. It’s a spirit of education, a purpose that has beckoned strong for 82 years, through segregation, integration and transformation. If buildings could have roots, the edifice that was first known as Charles M. Hall School would have the deepest, most widely reaching roots in the city of Alcoa.
A new venture in the form of a training academy for emergency medical services is coming to the address now. Alcoa City Center, which is now a professional building, is continuing to add to its new life.
With the help of George Williams, Alcoa City Center executive director, Blount Today will look at the three distinct periods in the life of the building on Howe Street. Today, Williams, former students and teachers go back to segregation, back to 1927 through 1968, when Charles M. Hall School first gave birth to this strong spirit of education that has stood the test of time.
Preparing for a bright future
George Williams said the teachers’ emphasis during the days of Charles M. Hall School, a first through 12th grade school for African-Americans in Alcoa, was always on preparing students for a bright new future, even as intergration got closer.
“Everybody was optimistic about integration. Ms. (Helen) Harris talked about integration like a train and were we going to be ready. It was never whether a kid was given an excuse because they didn’t come from this family or that. There was no social strata. The emphasis was very clear…it was on preparation,” he said.
Alumni Jackie Hill said students learned to take chances. “They taught us failure was OK as long as you learned something from that failure. That experience and opportunity is what allowed lots of us to go forward in the world and tackle anything,” she said. “If we didn’t succeed the first time, by gosh we would get it the second time. It was that atmosphere.”
Williams said Hall School students excelled even though they were in a segregated situation. “Hall would get hand-me-down stuff from the other schools. In relation to the other black schools, particularly in East Tennessee, we were the elite because we were in Alcoa. This was one of the better facilities, better managed and kept,” he said. “We were in sports. If we went to the state championship, we always got new uniforms because we represented the City of Alcoa.”
Hill said Hall School was the place to be. “It was an experience if you think about it. We were blessed, and we didn’t realize how blessed we were until some of us got older and could appreciate it,” she said.
Williams said the students didn’t realize they went to a school that was considered substandard to Alcoa High School. Hill said that didn’t change how students learned.
“It wasn’t something that determined how far we went in life. What determined that was you,” she said.
Often the parents and even members in the community punished students for misbehaving because there was such a high standard for conduct.
“I got in a fight and then got five whippings because people in the neighborhood heard about it,” Williams said with a laugh.
Jackie Hill’s brother Logan Hill said if something happened in school, the student got punished at home. “It was a neighborhood of caring. Everyone cared about the individual.”
Former student Melvin Love said Charles M. Hall School had some of best teachers in the area. “They loved us. They cared so much for us. They would take individual care with each student,” he said. “They would be there. I remember teachers coming to my house after school to talk to my parents.”
Jackie Hill said the teachers and staff had high expectations for students. “They always told us we could be anything we wanted to be,” she said. “We were only limited by our imagination and how big we could dream.”
Logan Hill said the teachers understood the segregated environment and instilled in students a drive to be the best. “They knew it was always going to be hard as persons of color going into the world of work. If you’re not the best, you’ll always be disadvantaged,” he said. “They always programmed us to give it our all. They instilled that into the parents, and they instilled that in us.”
Jackie Hill said the teachers always understood what the students’ capabilities were and tried to get then to expand. “They were understanding of our backgrounds and where we came from, and they knew the ones who were good in science and literature and the ones who were good in languages and helped direct us there,” she said.
Jackie Hill said her parents always told her she was going to college. In the same way teachers learned who was bound for college and who was more suited for trade school. “That was just as important as going to college,” she said. “You competed in the world no matter where you went.”
Jackie Hill said often she considered the expectations others back in Alcoa had for her as she pursued goals. “You thought of all the people who believed you could do it, so you got up and did it,” she said
Her brother agreed. “You didn’t want to disappoint them,” Logan Hill said.
Love said parents are different today, too. “Most of our parents weren’t educated, but they wanted the best for us, and they knew the time was coming where we needed an education,” he said
Former Hall School teacher Helen Harris joined the discussion via conference call.
“I passed onto them and insisted for them to be motivated kinds of individuals and to be involved, because of my past experiences I didn’t want them to have,” she said.
Harris, who recently celebrated her 89th birthday, said she held a philosophy throughout her teaching career and life that most didn’t have. “I believe the happiest people don’t necessarily have to have the best of everything, they make the best of everything.”
As Harris was finishing her conversation with her former students, retired teacher Geraldine Upton entered Williams’ office. Her former students reacted immediately by standing when she entered the room.
The students always respected Upton, Love said. “Most of us walked softly around her. She loved us but didn’t play,” Love said.
Upton said her job was to teach school and that’s what she was all about.
Logan Hill said it was something to teach knowledge in a disciplined environment. “She established discipline and the knowledge flowed,” he said as the other former students laughed.
Upton said what made the difference with students was if they realized teachers cared for them. “When you really care about people, that makes a difference,” she said. “When you’re fair, treat everyone alike and communicate that you care, you can teach.”
Jackie Hill said students always were drawn Upton. “She spent lots of time with us, either in school or out, and there were always life lessons. It wasn’t always in the structured classroom,” she said. “There were lessons on the basketball court, lessons when we had any special program and Mrs. Upton always tied it together.”
Upton said it was a matter of helping students discover who they were and what they could do and who they could be. “I used to teach an accounting class. All of my kids parents had accounts with Proffitts. I said, ‘I’m going to give you a payment, and I want you to go to Proffitts and pay.’ Some might ride a bus, some might walk. You might go any number of ways but you’ve got to get Proffitts and pay the bill and then take the receipt back to your parents,” she said. “The lesson there was, there were lots of different ways to be a success. There’s no one way that works for everybody. Some went the trade school route, some went to college, and some went into the military.”
Upton said everywhere students went was a learning experience. “The bottom line is you’re not a carbon copy of anyone but I want you to be the best you that you can be. You’re not supposed to be like anybody else,” she said.
The former students said they learned a lot about leadership because of the many clubs that were available at Hall School.
“(Losing leadership positions) was one of the drawbacks of integration,” Upton said. “If other kids didn’t vote on you regardless of how qualified you were for a position, you didn’t get it.”
Upton said the teachers had a love for Charles M. Hall School. “We knew we might not have the newest books but we had books in our heads that hadn’t been published, and we wanted to share that with you,” she said.
After Hall School students were integrated into Alcoa High School in 1968, Upton said she went there as a guidance counselor. “The needs of children are the same whether you’re red, green, white or polkadot. You need to learn how to be respectable and assume responsibility and learn how to serve,” she said. “I’d take kids in my office, and we’d have ‘come to Jesus’ meetings. The same message to black kids I gave to white kids - ‘You need to shape up and take care of your business and behave yourself.”’
Upton said the students at Charles M. Hall School grew up knowing they were able to share. She recalled being the girls basketball coach and how the players were raising money to buy new uniforms. “One member, her house burned down, and she lost everything. Those kids didn’t hesitate. They said, ‘Let’s take some of the money we raised and buy her a coat and other clothes and items.’ They didn’t think anything about it,” Upton said.
Teachers also reached into their own pockets to help students, especially at graduation when students needed to buy caps and gowns and other necessities. “If a student didn’t have what every other student had, the teachers made sure every child had what every other child had because this was an important time in their life, and we wanted them to feel like a person of worth,” she said.
Upton came to Hall School in 1957 and left in 1968. She worked at Alcoa High School and retired with 44 years of service in 1970. “I was having so much fun I wasn’t counting time. I was just having fun,” she said.