After an emotional ceremony during which a historical marker commemorating the contributions made by Escambia County Training School was unveiled, the ensuing black heritage program at Atmore City Hall was almost anticlimactic.
The program featured a brief history of Rosenwald schools delivered by Elvin Lang, vice-chair of the Alabama Black Heritage Council, followed by the keynote address, which was presented by noted black historian, media consultant and author Dr. Richard Bailey.
“Dr. Bailey is going to razzle-dazzle you with history, give you the rest of the story,” Lang said before Robert Crenshaw, a 1964 graduate of ECTS, introduced the featured speaker.
Bailey, who was obviously moved by the earlier ceremony, talked for about 20 minutes of the enthusiastic response that once greeted the opening of a new school, especially one for black children, and how that enthusiasm has waned.
“Many of our young kids seem to have no full appreciation for the value their ancestors placed on getting an education,” he mused. “When Emerson School, the first Negro school in Mobile, opened in 1865, kids were standing out there when those doors opened. They rushed into that school as if they were about to experience their last inheritance. When Escambia County Training School opened in 1926, the enthusiasm those parents had for their kids is something that is difficult to understand.
“Where is that zeal today? We have forgotten or minimized the zeal that those people held for an education.”
The speaker related the stories of several ECTS grads, touting the marks each made on black history, as well as state and local history, after completing their collective education at Escambia County’s first education facility for people of color. He urged the nearly 50 people in attendance to help spread the word about the individuals about whom he spoke, an action he said could have positive economic effects for the city and county.
“You can see there’s something magical about what goes on here,” he said. “It will remain a secret if nobody tells the story. You all have some gold here; don’t let it stay underground. Those nuggets will increase property values when you tell people what’s here, who’s been here, all these giants in many professions who call Atmore home.
“I wouldn’t have missed this opportunity for anything in the world, to come here this morning and talk to you about Woodrow McCorvey Jr., Woodrow McCorvey Sr., Jessie Cook, Fanny Sharp, Lois Smith Montgomery, Alma Dailey Staples and others.”
He closed by congratulating the Atmore Historical Society and others who helped obtain the historical marker that was dedicated at the site where ECTS first stood.
“As I take my seat, let me say congratulations to everybody in Escambia County for the attention you have shown to that historical marker that we have unveiled today and for the cooperation you have given,” he said, throwing in another economic reference as he closed. “I felt something here today that is absolutely magical. Be careful, you might have to build more motels.”
Herb Hackman, president of the local historical society, then provided the closing remarks, magnifying what Bailey, Lang and others had expressed earlier.
“I’m sure I’m not alone in not knowing exactly what to expect today,” Hackman said. “I’m also sure I’m not alone in saying, ‘Thank God we came.’ We have heard so many examples this morning as to why we should have pride in Atmore.
“I believe that pride and that drive started back when this school we honored today was started, back in the 1920s. Those people had the foresight and fortitude to make it happen. When you tell us about the results of that training, that schooling, the success stories we have in this city, it speaks for itself. You are all winners.”
After program, Bailey autographed copies of his books as those in attendance enjoyed refreshments and fellowship.