When Escambia County Training School was founded in 1920, the county’s first public school for black children was met with scorn and suspicion by most white residents. Now, nearly a century later, the school and its impact on the local community is being praised by people of all colors.
Last Friday, Dec. 2, local and state historians joined city officials and others in stressing the importance of the former school during a ceremony to unveil and dedicate a historical marker commemorating the facility and its legacy. The marker was placed at the location on Martin Luther King Drive (formerly 8th Avenue), where the wooden schoolhouse was established.
Several speakers took the podium during the ceremony and all praised Atmore Historical Society member Barbara McCoy for her untiring efforts in obtaining the marker for the school. McCoy was not seated among the dignitaries nor was she one of speakers, but the event would not have taken place without her dedication to the cause.
A crowd of around 100 people, including numerous ECTS graduates and former teachers, turned out on a sunny morning punctuated by stiff wind gusts that whipped a 20-foot by 40-foot U.S. flag atop Atmore Fire Department’s ladder truck as the ceremony progressed.
“This is a very unique opportunity that we are experiencing this morning,” pointed out Atmore Historical Society member Foster Kizer. “This is the first historical marker in the city of Atmore that has been approved by the Alabama Historical Commission.”
Mayor Jim Staff, who recalled attending ECTS football games as a teen and young adult, echoed those sentiments prior to reading a municipal proclamation in honor of the school and the occasion. Staff was standing in for former city councilman and local coaching legend Cornell Torrence, who was unable to perform the task due to health problems. He was, however, in attendance.
“Coach Torrence was supposed to do this,” Staff said as he surveyed the audience. “He’s a gentleman who knows as much about this school as anybody does. We’ve got quite a few folks here that know something about this school. It’s been a history landmark for I don’t know how long.”
The proclamation noted the school’s role in “choreographing history, providing people of all colors and all ages, as well as future generations, the opportunity to learn about the history of Atmore and the critical role Escambia County Training School played in the history and heritage of Alabama and Atmore.”
Elvin Lang, vice-chair of Alabama Black Heritage Council, recounted the backstory of ECTS and the other “Rosenwald schools” that were established largely through an early-20th Century collaboration between Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears & Roebuck, and Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Lang pointed out that the total cost of constructing ECTS was $22,675 and that local citizens – black and white – raised $2,625 of that.
Robert Crenshaw, a 1964 graduate of the local school who later earned a degree in electronic engineering technology from Alabama A&M University, recounted some of his experiences as a student there and pointed out that ECTS produced a wide array of people who went on make names for themselves.
“A lot of people got great foundations here,” Crenshaw said. “We’ve got ballplayers, we’ve got coaches, we’ve got scientists, we’ve got agronomists, all kinds of careers that came out of this school. When you look around, we are just blessed at so much talent that came through here.”
Hannah Garman, who coordinates the Alabama Historical Commission’s historical marker and register program, explained that the granting of a historical marker was “a very prestigious honor” that is not easily gained, then Atmore Historical Society President Herb Hackman noted the diversity of the city’s and county’s population and ended his remarks with a reference to the local effort to preserve the Strand Theatre.
“Listening to these stories of the past reinforces my belief in Atmore,” Hackman said. “We have a very diverse community here. We have Pride of Atmore Save the Strand here. I’d like to twist those words around a little bit [pride in Atmore] and challenge us all to take pride in the fact that we’ve got a lot to be proud of.”
Willie Grissett, chairman of the Escambia County Board of Education and a former teacher, read the marker aloud, also stressed the significance of the occasion.
“Let it be known that the special honor and the magnetism of this moment will outweigh anything else today, on this historic Escambia County Training School Day.”
One of the other highlights of the event came when the choir from New Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church sang “My God Is Real,” then led the former ECTS students and teachers in the school’s alma mater, “Escambia, Escambia, We Love Thee Dearly.” Several members of the crowd wiped away tears as the strains of the song floated across the former school grounds.