UNVEILING A LEGACY: Historic LaFayette school site honored with landmark

Published 9:00 am Tuesday, June 27, 2023

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Steeped in 104 years of racial history in LaFayette, the former Chambers County Training School site was honored with unveiling a historical landmark on Saturday. 

During the ceremony, community members, alumni, city officials and LaFayette teachers told the school’s history and impact on the education of the Black community in LaFayette. 

The school, which housed JP Powell Middle School up until the recent move onto the Eastside Elementary campus, was originally the site of one of the earliest high schools for Black students in Chambers County.

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“This ground we’re standing on is rich in history,” said Alumni President Nell Finley. 

Many alumni from the school released gold-and-black balloons to celebrate the 104th anniversary, including former educators Mrs. Eddie Brown, class of 1961, and Jennell Crawford, class of 1962. 

LaFayette Mayor Kenneth Vines and Commissioner Douglas Jones were among the community members who spoke about their own experiences attending the school, either as CCTS or as it was later renamed Southside Middle School. 

“These same halls I roamed through my years,” Vines said. “This place I hold dear to my heart, and for alumni, I know that holds true for you too.”

The Chambers County Training School Alumni group, led by Alumni Ruby Carr and Finley, fundraised for the historical marker to represent the significance of the school site. 

Carr researched documents and worked to get the site submitted to the Alabama Historical Commission. The commission granted the Historical Landmark and Heritage designation on Aug. 24, 2022. 

“Chambers County Training School was one of the first schools that black children could attend to receive an education, and that in itself is an essential historical fact to know,” said LHS teacher Ty Smith. “Across the nation, formerly enslaved Black people and Black educators advocated relentlessly to have a school building for Black children. One of the most prominent folks of this movement here in Chambers County was Mr. C. Neal Finley.”

The site was first purchased from Nepton and Lucy Adams, the largest Black landowners in LaFayette at the time, for the building of a school in 1918. 

Finley, a local Black educator and merchant, had written an appeal to the white citizens in the city and county to help fund a training school the year before. The first high school graduation ceremony was held in 1928. 

1948 the two-story school burned under unknown circumstances, and the current structure was built the following year. New additions were made to the school, including another wing of classrooms, a library and a gymnasium throughout Principal JP Powell’s 22-year tenure.

Crawford, who taught at Eastside Elementary, is one of the last living Chambers County teachers who helped integrate the schools. Hers was also the first class to walk in the gymnasium.

The school transitioned to a middle school, being renamed Southside Middle School, in 1969 with the ending of the state’s dual public education system. The middle school was later renamed a second time in honor of Powell.  

With the ceremony taking place one day after the court’s ruling on the CCSD consolidation case, many community members also expressed their disapproval of the ruling. 

“The same racist forces that hindered Black students from having a school built in LaFayette, Alabama, is the same white power structure that is trying to displace our students today in LaFayette,” said LHS teacher Ty Smith during the CCTS historical marker unveiling. “We need the same spirit of advocacy and determination, the same spirit of good trouble, of citizens like Mr. Finley, formerly enslaved black people and anti-racist whites to fight to have a school here in LaFayette so that our students can have an equitable and just future.”

Since JP Powell was moved to the Eastside Elementary campus, the building has been used for storage for the school district. However, the citizens of LaFayette and school alumni call for the building to be useful to the community. 

“All of us walked through these halls of Southside,” Carr said. “We’re asking the city of LaFayette, the mayor and city officials to make it known to the Chambers County School District that the building be used as a community center.”