Light of Athens - Trinity High School
By Charles Tisdale
Publisher, Jackson Advocate
Copyright 2000. Jackson Advocate, Jackson, Mississippi. Permission to reprint and post granted by Ms. Alice Tisdale, Associate Publisher.
The Trinity community will never forget the Christmas season of 1941, when the Japanese war plans bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered World War II on Dec 7. Trinity's High School's connection to the war thrust it into the national limelight when two instructors, Dr. Tyosho Matumoto and Frederick Charles McLaughlin were arrested. "That was a significant Christmas for members of the Trinity community. It occurred a long, long time ago, when there was a great commitment to Black causes and institutions."
Athens, Ala. is located near the Tennessee border in northern Alabama. It is situated squarely on the intersection of U. S. highways 72 and 73. Highway 31 is, ironically, called the best "bee line highway" because of its meandering route as it winds it way from the Alabama gulf coast to the Canadian border.
Athens is also situated near the confluence of the Elk and Tennessee rivers. As an early protégé of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Athens has abandoned agriculture as the basic industry, being thrust into the atomic and space age by the nearby NASA base at Huntsville, and the Brownsferry Nuclear Center, located some 10 miles from the Athens city limits.
Athens received its name because of the establishment, in colonial times, of a wilderness school for women, Athens Female College. Thus, likes its Hellenic predecessor, Athens was known as a center of culture and learning, if taken from the perspective of the only persons able to avail themselves of its intellectual blessings - white females. Signs erected by the Athens Chamber of Commerce proudly proclaim: "Welcome to Athens, Alabama, GardenSpot of the Tennessee Valley, Ideal Industrial Sites Available. Historically, however Limestone County, of which Athens is the county seat, has proved less than a "garden spot."
More than 100 years ago, after the Civil War ended, no educational facilities beyond the sixth grade level were provided by the city for Black citizens. Historically, too, Athens was the epicenter of an area of intense racial conflicts, some of which are evident to this day.
The infamous Scottsboro case took place less than 30 miles from Athens, in Madison County.
Madison County was the setting for the television drama "Judge Horton". The production was about the judge who tried to deal fairly with "Scottsboro boys," but was subsequently banished and ostracized by his peers. Just to the South of Athens is Cullman, which is, astonishingly, the home of Alabama's most liberal former governor, "Kissin Jim" Folson. It is also home to William Bradford Huie, the anti-Klan writer. Cullman is best known, however, for a sign which stretched for many, many, years, across it's main street: "Nigger Read & Run. If you can't read, just run!"
Such signs and such open intolerance are symptomatic of the convert racism, which has pervaded this part of the country. On the courthouse steps in Athens, Handy Ellis, who would two years later, along with Strom Thurmond, led the Southern states out of Democratic Party ranks, debated then-Alabama agriculture commissioner Jim Poole on the ethics of "race-mixing."
Jim Poole, who claimed he had "600 niggers" working for him on his farm in south Alabama, questioned the qualifications of Ellis on the race issue, since Handy Ellis was "only a corporate attorney for Alabama Power Co." Neither won. "Kissin Jim" did. A Black child, growing up in the elementary school system in Athens, received a full dose of indoctrination about the inherent inferiority of Black people in general. Along with the story of "Little Black Sambo." Black children were taught poetry, which in its racial context, would have given Adolph Hitler pause:
Along the rows of the cotton fields;
The Negroes move and sing,
They love to chop the cotton plants,
All shining in the spring.
And when the long hot summer days
Slip over one by one.
They pull their cotton sacks along
And chuckle in the sun
This is just one example of the denigrating experience to which Black children were subjected in the Athens public schools. There are others: Julia Tutwiler's "Alabama, Alabama, we will all be true to thee," was required to be memorized by every Black child in the Athens public school system.
There was one redeeming feature for the Black child in Athens - growing up in this sea of racism. It was Trinity High School, founded in 1867 by three northern white abolitionists women. Trinity stood as a singular beacon in the world of racial darkness. With the single possible exception of Talladega College, at another level. Trinity was perhaps the only such educational light in the state of Alabama. By the summer of 1941, Trinity was a highly respected education institution for Black youth. A new principle, Dr. Jay Talmadge Wright, had assumed the leadership role at the school, with a new educational plan called, "functional education," as the guiding principle.
To implement this new system of education, Wright hired a staff of competent academicians. The teachers were inspired by Wright's zeal to push forward the theory of "learning by doing". Among these new instructors was a young Japanese music teacher, D. Tyosho Matsumoto.
Dr. John A. Buggs, who later headed in the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; Dr. Charles Fancher, who later headed Fesenden Academy in Marin, Fla; the noted sociologist Dr. Marion Campfield; Dr. Charles S. Johnson at Fisk University; and the social historian E. Franklin Frazier, were among the lecturers who visited the Trinity campus. In the fall of 1941, with Christmas approaching, Dr. Matsumoto began to plan a "Christmas Pageant" to be presented on the day before school was recessed for the holidays. Among the songs he taught the choir was "O Come Emanuel." But on Dec. 7, Japanese war planes bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.
It was no surprise that Trinity was directly affected by the conflict. The school's connection to the war suddenly thrust it into the national limelight, when one day, during mid-afternoon, speeding cars loaded with local and federal law enforcement officials stormed the Trinity campus.
Arrested was Dr. Matsumoto, because he was Japanese, and Frederick Charles McLaughlin, a jolly Irishman who was dubbed a Communist by arresting officials. Though many of Trinity's students did not know what a Communist was, the entire community and student-body were deeply shocked by the arrests. On the scheduled night, with the greater majority of the Black community present, the pageant went on as planned. With each Christmas carol, the choir became more tearful. Determine to sing just one more song, the baton had been lifted by the substitute director, when, into the hall walked Dr. Matsumoto.
With all of his usual aplomb, Matsumoto raised his tiny white baton, leading the choir in "O Come, O Come Emanuel," Through the intervention of friends at the American Missionary Association, Dr. Matsumoto had been released from Japanese interment camp. Nothing was ever heard of Dr. Fredrick McLaughlin again. That was a significant Christmas for members of the Trinity community. It occurred a long, long time ago, when there was a great commitment to Blacks causes and institutions. A few years later, Trinity was absorbed by the Athens city school system, and closed shortly thereafter.
Graduates of Trinity include Duke professor Dr. C. Eric Lincoln, Dr. Floyd Farrell, Dr. Earline Farrell, Dr. Bernice Allen Reeves, and Jackson Advocate Publisher Charles Tisdale.
THE JACKSON ADVOCATE
Individuals of goodwill must concern themselves with and act to
curb repression, and to defend human rights. The ordinary
individual can make a difference.
"The Voice of Black Mississippians"
Publisher Associate Publisher
Charles Tisdale Alice Tisdale
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