By 9:30, the lights were ready to go up on the evening production of Shakespeare's As You Like It. The cast had been working for weeks on the show's premier that Friday night in April of 1910.
The house was packed. As the program notes emphasized, an appreciation of the arts and culture was a grand part of education and not to be taken lightly in the early 1900s or glossed over in favor of harder, grittier subjects in the curriculum.
The costumes had come all the way from Philadelphia, but they were far from being the only imported players that night at the Noble Institute for Girls. Indeed, the school on Anniston's eastern side had been drawing students from all over the region for decades.
It, along with a host of other private academies, colleges and schools, laid the foundation of Anniston's early educational system. By the middle of the 20th century, Samuel Noble and Daniel Tyler's project of urban incubation had staked its claim as a city that educated not only its residents, but those from other locales, as well.
Private boarding and day schools served the range of children who grew up playing and exploring Anniston's hills. Academies such as Barber Memorial Seminary served black children, the heirs to a rising black middle class in the post-Reconstruction South. Study the yearbooks at the other girls' schools — such as The Noble Institute — and you'll see a list of names that have seasoned Alabama politics for as long as there's been an Alabama.
Others, such as Alabama Military Institute, catered to young men whose families expected a military touch and a focus on science, and it was this command to improve science and technology instruction that marked the mission to teach Anniston's boys.
The city's educational heritage wasn't confined only to those who could afford to pay upward of $6 a month in tuition that some private schools charged in the late 1800s. Given Tyler and Noble's respect for education, the city leaders had decided by September 1883 to establish three public schools. The plan was to have a school for white boys, one for white girls and a separate school for black children.
The governing board would follow that plan up two years later with a tax to fund the schools — practically unheard of in the South at the time. Eventually the schools became so successful, parents in areas just outside the city limits would try to finagle a way to gain entrance for their children.
The board members' names can still be seen throughout the city: Wikle, Johnston, Goodwin, Randolph and Foster. Their determination, according to meeting minutes, was that children shouldn't be deterred from learning simply because their families were not as wealthy as others. The city needed them, and it needed them educated, if it was going to succeed.
They, who sent their children to the academies and private schools but built the framework for public ones, decided that education was too important an investment for a fledgling city to ignore. A century and a quarter later, the legacy of learning isn't so crystallized.
Dreams and expectations An illustration of the girls of the 1920s comes to life in a Noble Institute yearbook. One classmate closed the year out by recounting her dream of what her classmates would be. Florence Wilson pretended to see them years down the road, long after 1920 and their senior graduation. Time had taken them far from Anniston and the school that had molded them for much of their young lives.
Her dream, written in the school yearbook, captured the lives they'd hoped for so many years ago.
One was a missionary in China, while another spread a different kind of message — as a suffrage worker trying to gain women the right to vote. Their faces were as clear in Wilson's dream as were their personalities, from the farmer's wife to the settlement worker to the world traveler.
Time slips past, but the legacy of their shared history cannot be left behind.
Florence Wilson graduated from The Noble Institute in the midsummer of 1920. The school started by Anniston founder Sam Noble and completed in 1889 as a boarding and day school for girls was one of a handful of educational options that set Anniston apart from other cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The teachers were from around the world — London for music, Paris for French. Students came from as far away as Florida to take their place in Anniston's academies.
The schools' rolls read a bit like a society list from the post-Reconstruction South. Scan the letters of appreciation from parents, and the names of judges, governors and businessmen pop from the faded pages. However, as the girls point out in their own words, there are simpler ambitions for the young women who received their formal education in the shadows of Anniston's iron mountains: They wanted to learn and, in turn, contribute to their community.
It wasn't just Anniston's private academies that were known in the South for their programs. The city's public system was once regarded as among the best in the state. A Jacksonville State University graduate student, Catherine Whitehead, wrote a history of the first 50 years of the Anniston City Board of Education. Among the observations from the early years is the fact that Anniston once had a history of supplying the state Department of Education with its administrators, officers and innovators.
"It was a tremendous system to be a part of," recalls Estelle Robertson, who retired from Anniston's Tenth Street Elementary as principal in 1987 and then spent five more years supervising student teachers from JSU. "And at one time, anybody from Anniston High School could go anywhere. We sent students to West Point, to Annapolis, to Georgia Tech — wherever they wanted."
Margarette Longstreth tells a similar story of her students' ambitions. They were across town, on the west side, at Cobb High School and Junior High, which was closed when the city built the current Anniston Middle School. Longstreth taught eighth-grade social studies and still sees her students around town.
"I've always had that love of children and a love of learning," says Longstreth, who retired in 1992 and remembers Cobb fondly. "There was no foolishness, and there were very high expectations of what the children could learn and do."
Former teachers, those whose careers stretch back as far as Robertson's and Longstreth's, remember when the city's requirements for teachers rivaled those of private academies. The curriculum — and incentives for students to succeed — were equally matched.
Whitehead's study from JSU emphasized the city's drive for teacher recruitment, including a note in 1911 that said no teacher would be hired unless he or she had a minimum of one year's experience. A year earlier, board member Alfred L. Tyler had announced he'd pay $10 in gold for the best student essay. That would be about $220 in gold today. Further incentive came in 1915 when the board members set up a scholarship for the best speller, and four years after that, it was mandatory for students to take classes in public speaking.
During the summers in the early 1900s, city school buildings were turned over to the factories, which would hire teachers to educate their workers on their off days.
By 1934, the city became one of the first public systems to have a program to keep delinquent children in school. When the city established a class for the mentally handicapped in the 1955-56 school year, it was just as revolutionary in public education.
A study of the board's history shows that money and teacher recruitment have long been issues that warred with those expectations for excellence. For instance, in 1912, the board decided the city could set up an electricity contract with Alabama Power, providing the bill didn't exceed $250 a year. To keep the cost down, no light bulb could be higher than 40 watts. Another entry points to a move then-Mayor W.S. Coleman made in 1934 to keep the schools open when systems all over the country were collapsing in the Depression.
The minutes, and accompanying newspaper clippings, reveal the image of town that had married itself to its school system and was determined to see that union thrive.
As the school system flourished, more and more of the city's elite bought into the idea that the schools they were funding were ideal for their own children. The academy and private school culture started to wither in Anniston, and would fade almost completely by World War II. It would stay dormant until the 1990s, when home schooling and private enrollment began increasing at a rate eclipsed only by the sheer numbers of families who left the city for other school districts.
The last 50 years
The teachers who remember Anniston's heyday, and whose children graduated from the public system or who had grandparents attend the academies, say they aren't sure when the foundation shifted. Part of the attrition from the system may be to the rise in home-schooling and religious schools. Enrollment flight — and the reason the system has foundered — is harder to pin down.
Pointing only to integration is too simplistic, according to folks like Longstreth and many Cobb graduates, who've expressed their support for the neighborhood school through the years. After all, when students attended all-black schools within the city, those students were held to high standards. Therefore, simply saying that having a "black" school equals a poor-performing school isn't acceptable — or accurate.
Mac Gillam remembers when the majority of Anniston's children used public schools, and most went to Anniston High. As integration came, the city allowed students to choose to attend Anniston High.
"We had some black students, and they were there because they wanted them to be there or their parents wanted them to be there," says Gillam, who taught at Anniston High in 1968-69 and at Johnston Junior High in 1970. There was a minimum amount of racial issues, and teachers, black and white, were really instrumental in making the transition as smooth as possible, he added.
"It was still the primary educational institution for the citizens of Anniston."
After leaving Johnston, Gillam got his doctorate from Florida State University and then taught at JSU for 30 years. Looking back, he feels some remorse for how the system has fared. It's a feeling echoed by many others who spent their time teaching Anniston's children and now worry about their future.
"Teachers were free to do what they thought best," says Anne Phillips, who started teaching in 1960 and retired in 1997. She attended as a student every school she'd later teach at: Noble Street and Quintard elementary schools, Johnston and Anniston High. "Today they spend so much time proving that they've taught something, they don't have time to actually teach something."
She, like Longstreth, remembers the power of the neighborhood school and wonders if there's something that can be done to return that sense of ownership. "There's not that sense of community," she says.
Robertson says she remains optimistic that the city's system can emerge and become a destination district. The former science teacher has been involved in the Next Start program and the Anniston City Schools Foundation and says that only a good system, with equal cooperation between the council, the board and the parents, will produce a system that other, new parents will buy in to.
"Somehow — and I don't have the answer to that — we've got to have a better image. And only a good school system will bring them back," says Robertson, who had three children graduate from Anniston High and go on to careers in education. "I've always been hopeful."