One cannot escape the ugly atrocities of segregation in the public school system. Due to segregation being not only the law, but the norm, the City of Atlanta opened just 2 schools for African-American students. They weren’t separated by age or gender as the white schools were and were often faced with overcrowding and dangerous conditions. For this section, I will discuss the first African-American schools in the Atlanta Public School System.
Summer Hill School ( 1867 – 1980’s):
Despite being declared the city’s oldest school, I found it very challenging to find in-depth articles about the Summerhill School. In 1897, the Atlanta Constitution declared the Summerhill School to be the oldest Negro school in the city. Though it is often erroneously declared as 1872 being it’s official opening date, it has been proven that Summerhill School actually began in 1867 thanks in part to the Freedman’s Bureau. However, it was grouped in with the five white’s only schools that opened in 1872, after the official opening of the Atlanta Public School System.
The neighborhood for which the school was named for, has a rich and interesting history. Summerhill was one of two post-Civil War settlements established in 1865 by William Jennings, whose earliest inhabitants were freed, slaves and Jewish immigrants. Summerhill would soon welcome a game-changing visitor, Massachusetts native Frederick Ayer. After spending most of his early life as a teacher and missionary to the Ojibway Native Americans, Ayer traveled to Atlanta, Georgia to continue his missionary work which included building a school for freed slaves. Ayer’s description of Atlanta in 1865 was a depressing and sad description. Many residents (white and black) were starving, still suffering from the aftermath of the Civil War. Smallpox was rampant, and crime was on the rise. Perhaps the scenes of desperation and despair sparked Ayer’s desire to found a Congregational church. The church would ultimately inspire Ayer to build the first school for African-American’s, located at Richardson and Martin Street. The school would go on to operate for 3 years until the Atlanta Public School system purchased it in 1872, renaming it what we know today as the Summerhill School. Summerhill would soon see another first, naming C.W. Hill as it’s principal. C.W. Hill would become the first African-American principal in Atlanta, GA.
As the city of Atlanta grew, so did the need for schools to house the increasing number of student. African-American students were only afforded the option of attending two schools initially, however, a few more would ultimately open in the 20th century. Despite the new schools, African-American’s were often crowded into one room buildings or dilapidated wooden structures with little to no ventilation. What’s more, African-American students weren’t offered the option to attend grammar school and graduate to high school. Most schools for African-American’s housed all grade levels. The disparities between white and black communities were pretty obvious. As more and more schools for whites were erected, black students were often left out in the cold — both figuratively and literally.
In 1909, an article in the Atlanta Georgian stated that Summerhill School housed over 800 students! Overcrowding in Atlanta’s schools was an epidemic of mass proportions. In addition to overcrowding, many of Atlanta’s older school houses were falling into ill-repair, Summerhill was one of the many schools condemned due to its poor structure and overcrowding. The Summerhill school didn’t receive plumbing until 1910 until then outdoor, public restroom facilities were utilized and water was derived from a well. A 1915 Atlanta Constitution article exposed the ugly truth behind the deplorable conditions of some Atlanta Public Schools. The article’s author felt that the taxpayers had a right to know how the Board of Education was spending their money. The Summerhill School was described as bursting at the seams, which children crowded into tiny classrooms and even in hallways. These were the children of the domestics who lived in Summerhill and often worked in nearby neighborhoods as servants, maids, and nannies. Summerhill was also home to successfully wealthy African-American’s as well. Collectively, all residents paid taxes and therefore should have adequate schools for their children to attend.
In 1923, Summerhill School was renamed as E.P. Johnson Elementary with principal J.V. Drake presiding. Rev. Edwin Posey Johnson (1849-1929) happened to be one of the most prominent African-American pastors in the city and would be a part of Atlanta University’s first graduating class. Understandably, the school would be renamed in his honor. By 1927, the former Summerhill School was facing the subject of overcrowding once more. African-American’s demanded that board add more schools for black students and add on to the current schools that are operational, with E.P. Johnson on the list. E.P. Johnson would go on to host African-American students until its closure in the 1970’s. Unfortunately, the original E.P. Johnson/Summerhill school was demolished in the 1980’s after being abandoned for over a decade. At the time of its demolishment, the Summerhill area was ladened with crime, poverty and slums areas. Many have credited its downfall with the induction of the highway system and the building of the Fulton County stadium, which displaced many Summerhill residents. The Summerhill area would witness a resurgence in popularity with the 1996 Olympic Games, BeltLine project and new Georgia State University purchase of the Turner Field stadium.
The second school to open African-American’s, after Summerhill School, was Storr’s School. While I found it very challenging to locate in-depth information about the Summerhill School, it was even more challenging to locate enough information on the Storr’s School. As I continue my research and compile more information, it will be added to this post. Until then, the information posted below is what I was able to research so far.
Storrs School (1865 – 1930’s?):
The origins of the Storrs School is just as intriguing as the Summerhill School. Storrs School is difficult to locate on the Sanborn maps mostly because it actually began as somewhat of a private school inside of the First Congregational Church in downtown Atlanta. Originally located at Houston street (which is now named John Wesley Dobbs) until the late 1870’s, Storr’s school operated as a private school for African-American students post-Civil War.
Founded by the American Missionary Association in 1865, the Storrs School got its name from a monetary gift it received from the Storr’s Congregational Church in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1860’s. Missionaries from both the north and the midwest would ultimately migrate to the Storrs School (located inside the church) to provide educational services to freed slaves. The AMA maintained possession of the Storr’s School until around 1877 when they handed over possession to the newly minted Atlanta Board of Education at the cost $5,000. Interestingly enough, Atlanta University was also founded out of the same church as the Storrs School.
Stories about the acquisition of the Storr’s School by the Board of Education vary. It appears that the school was owned by the AMA, they took possession back, then resold it to the Board of Education. But, a January 1890 Atlanta Constitution article contradicts the story of the acquisition of the Storr’s School. According to this article, the Board of Education voted not to purchase the Storr’s School after white residents protested. The article also mentions that the school had been abandoned at this time because the American Missionary Association no longer considered the education of African-Americans to be missionary work. According to the residents of the ward, having a “negro school” in their white district would be a nuisance, therefore the school would have to find another location. Until a new location was purchased, the Storr’s School remained closed. The AMA informed the Board that if a new location wasn’t purchased in time, they’d have to repurchase the school in order to continue providing educational services to the nearby students. By the 1930’s it is reported that the Storrs School had officially closed with its students scattered about the Atlanta Public School system; some of the former Storrs School students would later enroll into the “Gate City School,” also known as Houston Street School. It was frustrating to see so little information concerning schools for African-American’s in Atlanta. More in-depth research will certainly ensue.
- SKIP MASON, Contributing Editor. 1999. “Three Atlanta Neighborhoods: Summerhill, Washington Park, Vine City.” Atlanta Daily World (1932-2003), Jun 13, 5. http://ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.gsu.edu/docview/491802455?accountid=11226.
- “10 NEGRO SCHOOLS ASKED OF BOARD.” 1927.The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945), Aug 10, 5. http://ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.gsu.edu/docview/499951522?accountid=11226.
- “Pioneering Black Atlantans.” 2000.Atlanta Daily World (1932-2003), Jul 16, 5. http://ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.gsu.edu/docview/491806276?accountid=11226.
- McCRAW, VINCENT. 1982. “First Black Public Schools.” Atlanta Daily World (1932-2003), Feb 11, 1. http://ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.gsu.edu/docview/491575471?accountid=11226.
- “Storr’s School.” 1877.The Daily Constitution (1876-1881), Oct 10, 1. http://ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.gsu.edu/docview/494663783?accountid=11226.
- “CITY CHEMIST TO ANALYZE IT.” 1904.The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945), Aug 16, 5. http://ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.gsu.edu/docview/495907927?accountid=11226.
- “TO OPEN SCHOOL IN EIGHTH WARD.” 1904.The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945), Dec 16, 9. http://ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.gsu.edu/docview/495881049?accountid=11226.
- “THE STORR SCHOOL PROPERTY.” The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945), Jan 14, 1890. http://ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.gsu.edu/docview/219948455?accountid=11226.