How Gadsden’s first free school came to be

By Danny By Danny "The Vagabond" Crownover

 In the home of Gadsden’s first pioneer, Gabriel Hughes, the first school of which we have any knowledge was started. Here his children and their young friends learned the three R’s under the instruction of one J. D. McMichael, a man of unknown background who always remained a mystery. He also served as a Sunday School teacher and became Gadsden’s first postmaster.
    In 1852 Professor John Slack, an honor graduate in law, came from Georgia with his wife, Susan Edwards Slack. The couple started a school in a house at the foot of Chestnut Street, moving later to what is now known as Slack Street. Mrs. Fry, an Englishwoman who had been educated in Paris, assisted the Slacks. In a poorly-lighted frame building with two big rooms heated by large fireplaces, the youth of early Gadsden sat on long benches and learned reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, geography, astronomy, French, Greek and Latin.
    In the beginning, tuition was paid in work, food, quilting and sewing. Later, a small fee was charged. The boys cut logs for the fire and drew from a well the water that was drunk from a common gourd dipper. Emma Sansom attended this school.
    In 1865, a Dr. Heath established an academy on Locust Street between Court and Fifth streets.
    An amusing story survives concerning the school of Dr. Perdue, of which General Sibert, the creator of the Panama Canal, attended. The school was founded in 1872 and conducted on Turrentine Avenue. According to the story, Mrs. Perdue gave a “candy pulling” for the pupils. She dished it out sparingly until she saw the candy would not run short, when she became more liberal. The boys composed the following jingle to describe the incident:
Old Lady Perdue
Gave a candy stew.
Those that came soon
Got it in a spoon.
Those that came late
Got it in a plate.
    Important private schools included Miss Carrie Turrentine’s well-remembered Noccalula Seminary on Turrentine Avenue; schools taught by Miss Fannie Fullen-Wider on Eighth Street; schools taught by Miss Fannie Archibald on North Sixth Street; and schools taught by Miss Eliza Heath (not related to Dr. Heath) on South Sixth Street. Miss Eppie Turnley started the first kindergarten in about 1880.
    During the 1890s, Dr. A. B. Jones’s pretentious finishing school for young ladies flourished briefly in the old Bellevue Hotel on Lookout Mountain. Other private schools were taught by Misses Lucy Pettingill and Stella Ewing, Mrs. Ida Lowe, Miss Lizzie Matthews, Miss Emma Morrow, Messrs. Potter and Bailey, Mr. Elbert McGhee, Mrs. Bryant Miller Pogue and Mrs. Daisy Kittrell Vann.
Three trustees of a Gadsden school district – W. T. Ewing, A. L. Woodliff and Joseph Bevans – attempted to operate a free public school in 1877, but the effort failed.
    Realizing the need for free schools, citizens held a mass meeting about September of 1879. This meeting resulted in appointing members of a committee to raise funds for the construction of the building. These members included J. R. Nowlin, J. T. Barret, A. L. Woodlif, Joseph Bevans, W. T. Ewing and R. B. Kyle.
    The committee secured $800 in subscriptions within a week, and a contract was awarded to D. J. Oxford for a large framed building costing $2,575, to be completed by April 1, 1880.
    The building was called The Gadsden Public Institute, and was erected on the site of what later became Striplin School and the present Gadsden Public Library.
    Professor A.B. Goodhue became the principal of The Gadsden Public Institute. Gadsden at the time had several private schools but not a public school. Both boys and girls attended the school.
    J. W. DuBose succeeded Professor Goodhue and was followed by Professor G. G. Jones in 1889. For six years, the city aldermen acted as trustees, but this plan proved unsatisfactory.
    On March 2, 1895, the first Gadsden Board of Education was elected by the mayor and aldermen. This board always has included outstanding citizens, beginning with J. H. Disque as chairman and J. M. Moragne, R. B. Kyle, W. G. Brockway and A. E. Goodhue as members.
    An important step had been taken When arrangements were perfected to give Gadsden a system of free public schools open to all the children of the city within the educational age, and a result accomplished, the significance of which is scarcely realized.
    The successful inauguration of this school is a long stride forward and marks an epoch in the history of Gadsden
    There were four depart    ments in this school – primary, intermediate, preparatory and collegiate.
    The primary department was presided by Misses Minnie Lay and Lilian Ridenhour.
    The intermediate department was under the management of Prof. D. Goodhue and Miss Bilbro. Miss Marshal from Ohio and Miss Mary Huddleston were the head of preparatory department.
Prof. Jones, the principal and superintendent of the school, was assisted in the collegiate department by Miss Annie Kirk.
From 250 to 300 students entered the schools during the first week.
    The school’s name was changed in 1881 to Gadsden Female Institute. In later years, it was also known as the Chestnut Street School and as the Central School. Title to the building and site passed to J. W. Dubose and his wife sometime before 1889.
    Gadsden created a separate school district in 1889, at which time the building and site were purchased by the city for $4,000 from J. W. Dubose and wife.
    The building was the principal school in the city until the Disque High School was erected in 1901. It continued to be used until 1910 when it was removed to permit the erection of the Striplin School.
    School buildings later built in the early days included Disque in 1901; Eleventh Street in 1907; Striplin in 1910; North Gadsden in 1910; Etowah Avenue in 1910; Gadsden High in 1923; Oak Park in 1923; South Gadsden in 1923; East Gadsden in 1926; Elliott (Alabama City) in 1926; Henry Street in 1929; Emma Sansom (Alabama City) in 1929; Gulf Steel in 1936; Dwight in 1936; Carver in 1936; and West Gadsden in 1936.
    St. James Catholic School, on Chestnut Street between Sixth and Seventh streets, was founded in 1913.
    The Benedictine Sisters came from Cullman to teach in this school, and much attention was given to musical training in the early days. St. James is now under the direction of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity.
    The Alabama School of Trades in East Gadsden was founded in 1925 and is supported by state funds. It is a trade-preparatory school and does not prepare students for college or for the engineering professions.
    The Johnson Kindergarten and Private Grammar School and the Taylor Kindergarten were also assets in the educational life of Gadsden.

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