WHAT’S IN A NAME? JP Powell Middle School

Published 11:30 am Saturday, February 25, 2023

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Every good gardener knows that in order for anything to thrive and grow, it must be given the space to take root. An avid gardener, Principal John P. Powell was as proficient in nurturing flowers and vegetables as in children’s education. 

Twenty-three years after Powell died, the Chambers County Training School campus has been named an Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.

“He was a principal that everybody respected,” said Alumni Association President for Chambers County Training School Nell Finley.

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Though he lived in LaFayette for much of his life, he was born in September 1912 in Barnwell, South Carolina. After getting his education from Savannah State College and Florida A&M University, he began teaching in 1949 at Langdale School in Valley.

Chambers County Training School opened its doors on Sept. 29, 1919. Nepton and Lucy Adams were merchants and the largest Black landowners in LaFayette during this period. They purchased the land on which the school was built. In 1928, the school held its first high school graduation ceremony.

Powell became the principal of Chambers County Training School in 1954. During his time there, the school added a new wing of classrooms, a library and a gymnasium. He cared not just about his students but the school itself. To this day, many of his former students can recall the way Powell would call them over to tell them to pick up a paper. 

“You couldn’t walk by a piece of paper on the ground,” Finley said. “He would say, ‘come here, my buddy.’”

Just as his garden at home was a well-tended oasis, Powell expected his school to be immaculate. He held his students to a high standard to come to school presentable. 

“That’s what he really taught; how to respect yourself,” Finley said.

Students like Maudie Scott couldn’t hope to get away with breaking the rules, because his wife, Sallie Ford Powell, was their homeroom teacher. Sallie was also a beloved educator. Together, the two found a balance between discipline and support.

“When you talk about him, you also have to talk about his wife because they were a team,” said Nell Trammell Bailey, a former student. “They did everything together.”

Fortunately, no student ever walked away with their tails between their legs. He earned the respect of his students by showing them that same respect. 

“He had a way of disciplining you so that you didn’t realize you were being disciplined,” Finley said. 

Though they had no children of their own, Powell and his wife provided for every child that came through the school. The couple helped provide for students in need or gave them rides home. 

Some students would spend time with them outside of school; one such child was Bailey. 

“I see myself as the daughter they never had,” Bailey said. 

When Bailey was in second or third grade, Sallie began to bring her home and take her shopping. She grew close to the couple, even meeting their extended family in Birmingham. Bailey had extra assignments while she was at school with Powell. During her free period, she learned typing and filing in the front office. 

He was dedicated to improving the school with “very little resources,” according to Bailey.

“He loved that school,” Bailey said. “He was concerned with the appearance of the school.”

During his lifetime, Powell kept an active role in his community. From their fertile garden, Powell and Sallie harvested fresh vegetables and gave a lot of it away to neighbors. He donated his time to the American Red Cross as a coordinator of the local chapter of Project Share. 

Edward “Drake” Drake was part of the last graduating class of CCTS before it became a junior high. He was the valedictorian, basketball player and class president. 

One day, Drake said Powell drove to his house and asked him how quickly he could get dressed in nice clothes and tie. Soon, the two were riding up to the LaFayette Sun to get a group photo with a representative of Playtex Company. Drake had won a full scholarship from the company.

“I still have that picture,” Drake said.

“He was one that thought encouragement made you do better,” Drake said. “I’m 71 years old and the influence that I had from Mr. Powell is still here today.”

Drake went on to attend Tuskegee University and study Agribusiness, economics and engineering. He became an engineer. He said that he was able to achieve so much because of the standards that he developed under Powell’s tutelage.

“That influence started back with Mr. Powell,” Drake said.

He was a representative of Services to Military Families, where he located and notified families of military emergencies.  He was also a member of the Chambers County Economic and Industrial Board and the Chambers County Retired Teachers Association. 

“A lot of times he did a lot of things behind the scenes, not for publicity,” Bailey said. 

While he lived in LaFayette, he attended Powell Chapel United Methodist Church. Scott remembered him as being just as kind and respectable in church as in school.

In 1969, the courts dismantled the state’s dual public education system. What this meant for the school was that it ceased to be a high school. Fourth through seventh grades remained at the school, which became Southside Middle. Eventually, the school evolved to house grades six through eight, the younger students moving to Eastside Elementary.

Powell worked for the school system for almost 30 years, first as a teacher and later as the principal. He remained at the school until 1976 when he retired. After retiring, he and Sallie took lifelong learning classes offered at Auburn University. Bailey said that Sallie took macrame and she thought Powell took pottery. 

Powell moved to Birmingham in 1996 and resided at the Hanover House Health and Rehabilitation Center. A natural leader, he was very active and became the president of the residents.

In November 1999, the school held a dedication ceremony renaming Southside Middle School to John P. Powell Middle School in honor of the long-time educator. In 1991, the LaFayette City Council proclaimed June 1 as John Powell Day. Powell passed away on May 19, 2005. 

The original site of J. P. Powell Middle School, then Chambers County Training School, was given its honorary designation on Aug. 24, 2022. 

The Alabama Historical Commission created the register “to recognize Alabama’s historic places and to encourage their continued preservation,” according to the acceptance letter. 

Though his legacy lives on in the new location of J. P. Powell Middle School, Powell was a vital glue that held the original school together during many trials.

“That was our Mr. Powell,” Scott said.