There is 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 for 82 years, through segregation, integration and transformation. If buildings could have roots, the edifice once known as Charles M. Hall School would have the deepest, most widely reaching in Alcoa.
A new venture in the form of a training academy for emergency medical services is on its way to the address. Alcoa City Center, the professional building Hall has become, appears a thriving entity.
With the help of Alcoa City Center executive director George Williams, Blount Today will look at the three distinct periods in the life of the building on East Howe Street. Today, former faculty discuss the years of integration when Charles M. Hall became Alcoa Junior High.
New year, new challenges
The beginning of the 1971 school year was anything but easy for Vaughn Belcher and his staff. It was Belcher’s first assignment as a principal. His new school - Alcoa Junior High - was in its first year as well, the last step toward the city’s full integration of its school system.
Alcoa High School enrolled 15 black students from Charles M. Hall in the fall of 1963 to initiate the change. Alcoa Elementary opened its doors along with the new junior high in the fall of 1971, the two schools doing away with the need for all-white Springbrook, all-black elementary and middle school Hall and already-integrated Bassell Elementary.
Hall graduated its last high school class in 1968, with the school continuing as K-8 until the opening of the junior high.
To say he and the staff faced a challenge might be an understatement, Belcher said.
“The first year was hard, very, very hard,” he said. “I had several black students tell me they would rather be in their own school. I told them to be patient. We would all work together. We did, and we finally made it through that first year. We made staff changes which helped us quite a bit after the first year.”
Belcher said it took a lot of prayer and the staff working together. He said the school had to be run in a disciplined manner.
“We had to be very, very stern, and we had to send some students home at times,” he said. “I remember always telling the staff, ‘Never give up on a child. They can change.’”
A former Alcoa City Commissioner, Williams said there was a lot done to preserve the Hall school before it became the junior high.
“I think the transition of making it an elementary school was a great move,” he said. Williams said the City of Alcoa made some interesting decisions when they were integrating on the junior high level.
“I don’t know of any other community where white kids were bused to the black community and done with the smoothness it was in Alcoa. That’s not to say there weren’t some hitches,” he said. “But white kids were brought to the Hall Community, and there was not a whole lot of time to do a lot of upgrading and renovations. We had seen some pretty aggressive resistance to integration all over the South, but Alcoa went fairly smoothly.”
Williams said that during the 1970s, there was restrained optimism in the community about the move.
“We didn’t know what integration was going to be, period. People were not sure what was going to happen. This was new territory for everybody. Just as you see now, there was optimism,” he said. “I can’t say enough about the leadership of people like Ms. Geraldine Upton and Ms. Helen Harris and Vaughn Belcher. These people really stepped up and worked to maintain the education process during this transition.
“Some extremely talented people went through this school at that time, people who are playing leadership roles in the community now. These people were all going through the Alcoa City System, the education process continued and continued at a fairly high level.”
Alcoa Junior High stayed at the Hall building until the winter break of 1978, at which point the site was closed for renovation. The seventh grade went to Alcoa Elementary, the eighth and ninth grades to Alcoa High.
Renovations to Hall included a new air conditioning/heating unit and carpeting, along with a new dining area and kitchen.
“We remodeled the whole thing for $470,000,” Belcher said.
In the summer of 1979, all three grades moved back, with the Hall site remaining a junior high for one more year.
“In the fall of 1980, we changed to a middle school with grades sixth, seventh and eighth,” Belcher said. “It was a completely different transition. It was smoother. We had an excellent staff and all worked together, and the parents were very supportive of our school.”
It was at this point the school began getting requests from residents outside of the City of Alcoa to send their children to the school.
“For several years we have had a waiting list,” Belcher said.
Belcher retired in 1994 and was replaced by friend and current Alcoa Middle School principal Jim Kirk.
“It was a smooth transition for me, and I had worked with Vaughn. We continued the middle school concept, and it was a good place to be. We were supported in the community,” Kirk said. “You could walk out the door and see neighbors. They would check on their kids. Vaughn and I could walk down the street and see people on the street and talk to them. We had regular people to come up and help, and it was a good situation. It was a community center.”
Alcoa Middle School Paraprofessional Carolyn Tate was a student at the middle school during those days. She said then coach Jim White used the school gym as an activity center.
“They played basketball, board games, art. Kids always had somewhere to go and loved it,” she said.
Williams said even in integration, Charles M. Hall was playing a significant role in the education of children of the community.
“We look back now and see over half the people who attended school in the City of Alcoa school system attended school in this building,” he said. “That speaks volumes about our community.”
When the middle school moved out of the Hall site in 2003, the building was returned to Alcoa, Inc., which owned the property.
“They told Alcoa commissioners, you can use the building, sell it, or we’re going to tear it down. We decided it could be used,” Williams said. “It has turned out fantastic. Thank goodness we didn’t tear it down. The building is old, but the walls are double brick.”
Belcher said the community was proud the city continued to have school in the Hall building after integration.
“We didn’t just abandon the building. They felt like it was still part of their community, and it was,” he said. “Our enrollment continued to stay at a stable rate. Another plus of the Alcoa school system was the teacher/pupil ratio was excellent.”
Building the sports
Williams said there was a high level of pride in athletics at both Hall and Alcoa high before integration.
“I think it merged to become even stronger,” he said. “That was the beginning of what is still a strong middle school athletic program. You had the merger of two deeply-rooted traditions, and now that tradition has no racial identity. It’s Alcoa kids, period.”
Belcher said the junior high and middle school had excellent football and basketball teams. The teams were often dominant, Kirk said. Often, he said, African American students weren’t welcomed at schools where they played.
“There were times we went to schools that mistreated our children, and we spoke up,” Kirk said.
Kirk recalled an away game where some students from a rival school got into a car and tried to run the Alcoa Middle School team bus off the road.
“It was a shame our kids had to experience that. I’m so thankful that’s not the way it is anymore,” he said. “That was just an awful time. There were some places in the county it was hard to go to. We told our kids, ‘It’s ignorance.’”
Kirk said the diversity of the school is one of its drawing points.
“We get lots of people calling here saying they want their students here for the diversity,” he said. “I’m so thankful.”
Pumping up academic
Belcher said the first year or two, the school struggled with academics.
“As the years went by, the academics greatly improved. Teachers worked so hard in the classroom to have academics our No. 1 priority,” he said. “Academics have always been so important in the Alcoa School System.”
Kirk said teachers built relationships with students, parents and one another to help bring about that academic success.
“When you have great teachers, they work together. Building relationships is the whole thing about it,” he said.
Kirk said having Belcher on the city commission also helps.
“There are educators on the commission who know how important education is. They make it a priority,” he said. “The commission has always made education a first priority. They know how important education is.”
Sue Martin, who teaches at Alcoa Middle School and was a teacher at the junior high, said teachers set expectations high for students.
“We expect our kids to do well. We don’t lighten up. We push them. Our team concept is strong,” she said.
Williams said as the Hall building was improved and changes made, the identity of the once all-black school Hall was lessened.
“I think that was another good move because Hall School didn’t exist anymore and someone realized it was time to move on,” he said. “The upgrades were positive, so changes were never seen as a negative. It was great way of saying, ‘We’re moving on and also moving up.’”
Tate, an alumnus of the Alcoa system, said she and her classmates were close, regardless of their race.
“In the summer we couldn’t wait to get back with our friends. Now that I’m grown, I realize it was our teaching staff that made us unique. I never saw discrimination in my time in school. I loved all my teachers,” she said. “It was a bond I didn’t see at other schools.
“We all looked out for each other. Everybody was the same, and it was no difference. We all felt like we were at home the whole 12 years. I never felt anything but pride to be at Alcoa High School. It was a unique experience.”
Focus on relationships
Teachers building relationships with students and their families is what made integration work, Kirk said. Today, many African American students don’t even understand what the challenges were, he said.
“At the time, it was a generational thing. Back in the ‘70s, integration was unfamiliar. We were unsure of each other and whether we would accept each other. There wasn’t the trust,” he said. “The big thing I see now is how we’ve built relationships. That is what makes it work. These kids don’t think anything about that. (Segregation) is not part of their life.”
Williams said Belcher and Kirk always made efforts to involve parents in the school.
“You always had those naysayers and folks who are not going to allow change to be positive. They’re going to hold onto what was. I just think these guys did a remarkable job of what could’ve been a bad situation,” Williams said. “Even with those hitches, lots of people who went through the transition thought very fondly of the transition.”
Belcher said the PTA supported the school and never hesitated to call parents in to help. “Our parents bent over backwards to support the school,” he said.
Kirk said parents were always welcome to come in and speak with administrators and teachers when the middle school was in the Hall Community, and they are still welcome now that the middle school is located adjacent to the high school.
“The idea we’ve carried on is the school was always open to parents, and we never turned parents away, no matter what they had to say. We listened, and they would come to us,” he said.
Belcher said what made integration a success was everyone working together for a common good.
“You think about all these years since the fall of 1971,” he said. “You think about the administration, the school board, the staff, the community and the kids all working together to make us what we are today. It was teamwork.”