Sims stood before a room of more than 100 former Eastwood students and their guests Friday at the first school reunion, an event brought about by an effort to preserve the place that was so central to so many of their lives.
“When I saw the school boarded up, it prompted me in my spirit to say that we cannot lose Eastwood High School,” Sims said. “It means way too much — way too much — because it’s such an educational icon.”
The Eastwood School was the center of education for African-American students in Jacksonville until its last graduating class crossed the stage in 1967. When Jacksonville's schools were integrated in 1968, Eastwood sent 47 students and four teachers to the Jacksonville laboratory schools then under the auspices of Jacksonville State University. By 1970, the school had transformed into the Jacksonville Day Care Center, which served the community for 41 years before closing in December due to declining enrollment and funding. Now local residents, particularly members of the recently-formed Eastwood Historical Committee, are on a mission to ensure that the building remains an educational icon in the community.
After the day care closed in December, a group of residents led by Jennifer Sims, Sandra Sudduth and Sharon Abernathy had already recruited a number of people interested in saving the school and held the first committee meeting on Feb. 25, according to member Emily Lipscomb. They continued to move quickly, deciding that the next step in preserving the school would be seeking official recognition from the state. The Eastwood School was listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage on March 29.
The Eastwood School, like Kitty Stone Elementary, is owned by Jacksonville State University. President William Meehan said the university has no plans for the property but has talked of selling it or swapping the school for city property. He said the university fully supported listing the school on the state register.
The listing is solely an honorary one and comes with no restrictions on the property, said register coordinator Lee Anne Wofford. But placement on the registry does raise awareness about the historical significance of a property, and the research that goes into getting a site listed — photographs, maps, historical data — all are maintained for public access as a repository of the state’s historically significant structures.
The school has a storied history , although dates of its early history sometimes conflict. According to the historical committee, Jacksonville was served by the Negro School, which was built about 1885 in Rocky Hollow and then moved to East Vann Street about 1901. The first Eastwood School was constructed between 1925 and 1932 at its present location, and eventually its wooden structure was rebuilt with locally quarried stone with the help of Works Progress Administration workers. Sudduth said another account dates the construction of the first school at Eastwood as early as 1920. By 1945, it became a senior high school under the leadership of Principal William D. Moore. The first senior class graduated from Eastwood High School in 1947.
Lipscomb, a former student and teacher at the Eastwood School, said that during that month of work, the committee began planning for a way to get all of the school’s former graduates, attendees and teachers “back into the community to let them know that our dream had been accomplished.”
The conference center of Jacksonville State University’s Houston Cole Library was awash in school spirit — complete with Eastwood School colors of black and gold — at the first school-wide reunion last week. In between the smiles and hugs that come with catching up with old friends, attendees shared memories of their time in the historic building the community is working to save.
Joe Oden, who traveled from Snellville, Ga., for the reunion, recalled getting to school early to attend to the school’s old heating system — potbelly stoves.
“The only thing we were supplied with was a truckload of coal,” said the 68-year-old alumnus. “So we had to go cut down trees, bring it up, make a fire to warm the place up.”
He said that although the students went through a great deal — getting hand-me-down books, some without backs or missing pages — God saw them through.
Lipscomb said that she and her fellow teachers worked hard and didn’t mind the hardships.
“In fact, we didn’t really know we were going through those hardships,” she said. “It made us strong people.”
Sims, 61, the chair of the committee, remembered living so close to the school that her teachers knew what was going in her family on a given day.
“I remember the teacher saying to me one day, ‘Well, your grandmother’s washing today.’ Or she’d say, ‘Well, y’all are killing hogs,’” Sims told the group.
Oden also remembered the packed gymnasium during basketball games.
“As I look at this room, that gym could have been placed in this room and you’d still have space,” he said. “But the amazing thing is that little gym held championship games, tournaments. People would come into Jacksonville from everywhere … As you think about it now in the back of your mind, you think, how’d they play so many games in that little gym but always manage to win?”
While the school had a successful basketball team and renowned choir, academics always came first, Lipscomb said. And this has become part of the mission to preserve the school. According to Sims, ideas floating among the committee members and from interested alumni on Friday, include preserving the building as a place to house tutoring, a place for computer access and learning, or a cultural arts center. At the core, she said, the building is an educational icon and should remain so.
Anyone interested in furthering this mission can contact Jennifer Sims at 256-310-3388.