Anniston Middle School represents the future of the city’s public education as well as its past. Try as we might, it is impossible to divorce the school from either of those realities.
Today, Anniston Middle School is mired in a controversy whose origins trace to the mid-1970s, at least. The land it sits on is extremely valuable to a city desperate for new revenue and retail development opportunities, particularly north of downtown and near McClellan. The school’s mission — educating Anniston’s youngest teens — is equally important, if not more so.
Yet, the city’s decision-makers must embrace a firm understanding of Anniston Middle School’s history: why it was built on Alabama 21, why it wasn’t built closer to the city’s residential core, and how contentious those decisions, and others, were when the Board of Education and former Superintendent J.V. Sailors finally settled on a 24-acre tract of land across the street from a then-operable U.S. Army post.
A faulty understanding could lead decision-makers to lead the city’s public schools down another questionable path.
Anniston Middle School’s seeds were laid in the 1960s, when the federal government and Supreme Court’s efforts to integrate America’s public schools finally gained traction in our Deep South city. It was a slow, laborious process that produced divided opinions and several opposing strategies as to the best way to bring fair and equitable public education to black and white students alike.
Nevertheless, integrated public education did come to Anniston. Progress couldn’t be stopped. The year 1973 marked the first year in which the city’s public schools were fully integrated, though some white, middle-class families immediately began self-segregating their children from black students by moving out of the city or by enrolling in private or parochial schools.
Before 1973, black students in Anniston had been educated separately and graduated from Cobb High School. Forced integration birthed monumental change: despite its less-than-pristine condition, Cobb became the junior high school for black and white students, who would then advance to the recently built Anniston High School on Woodstock Avenue. Cobb High was the epitome of a neighborhood school, loved by residents who, to this day, still see it as a beacon of learning for black residents during the pre-civil rights times in the city.
Those paradigm shifts did not settle the queasiness felt by those who longed for something different, particularly among Anniston’s white families who weren’t unanimously fond of sending their children to (a.) a junior high in a predominantly black neighborhood, and (b.) a school housed in an aging building with few of the modern amenities found in the city’s previously all-white schools.
If you’re looking for the biblical moment of conception for today’s Anniston Middle School, here it is.
It took only a few years for the ingredients of discord to form into discussions about building a new junior high school in Anniston. Given the elements involved — race, children, politics, education — it was inevitable. In 1978, a poll conducted by the Alabama General Assistance Center at the University of Alabama unveiled Annistonians’ differing viewpoints.
When asked if they would support a tax increase to pay for a new junior high school in “a more central location,” 42 percent of polled residents said yes. Race, however, provided the real story. Fifty-two percent of white residents who were polled said yes.
Only 17 percent of black residents who were polled said yes.
In other words, five years after forced integration forever altered public education in Anniston, the question of location for the city’s junior high school became a never-ceasing dilemma. There seemed to be no middle ground, no consensus between the races, and no easy, palatable solution.
Today’s Anniston Middle School floats in that soupy mixture of diverging opinions, and has for nearly three decades. Its future rests on solving this long-standing problem.