Public history students work to document and preserve equalization schools in Alabama

For many college students, acquiring real-world experience occurs through internships or the occasional summer job. For students in Keith Hebert’s public history class, it’s a weekly occurrence. His students are working with state and local agencies to document and preserve equalizations schools in Alabama. What are equalization schools? And how did this project come about? Read more about it in our question and answer session with Dr. Hebert below.

What is public history, and what can be done with a public history degree
Auburn offers a degrees in public history at the master's and PhD level. Public history is a great field for aspiring historians who are very interested and working in communities and getting outside of academia - even if you're someone like myself who teaches at a university, I still spend a lot of time outside of the university. It's a program that really requires very specific training and a very unique kind of historian to pull it off. There is also a certification program in public history at Auburn. You can add a public history certificate to your doctorate by doing some public history training and a couple of internships. We have opportunities with the National Park Service, the Alabama Department of Archives and History, the Alabama Historical Commission, programs where our graduates enter into the work force through some of those partnerships that we have.

With this group of students, it sounds like they are not just studying the past, but trying to impact the future – is that correct? 
The basic goal of our current project is to document and preserve. Create a preservation movement to preserve equalization schools in the State of Alabama. 

What are equalization schools? 
Equalization schools existed all across the Southern United States. It's not just unique to Alabama. Most of them were built in the late 1940s during a time when there were many supreme court cases going up to Washington that were challenging the segregated school system, especially in the American South. And these cases, for many southerners, it seemed inevitable that at some point the supreme court was going to rule all that segregation was unconstitutional. In an effort to try to get around this and to try to convince the federal government that segregation was a positive good for society, most southern states, including Alabama in the years around the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, 1954 or so, starting building millions of dollars worth of new schools, most of them for African Americans. In some cases, for first time ever, they're building new facilities for black school children. Before Brown v. Board, Alabama and other southern states had attempted to equalize school funding and teacher pay for African-Amercians and whites, while also passing laws designed to preserve segregation. The goal of this was not necessarily to improve the educational opportunities of African Americans, it was far more sinister goal, which was to convince the federal government that all is well. That African Americans are perfectly happy in this segregated system. The plan was that when federal officials come down, the would be shown all the new high tech schools that have been built and hopefully convince the federal government that Brown versus Board and forced integration was not only unconstitutional in their eyes, but also unnecessary.

So when integration comes to Alabama, what happens to the integration schools? 
Basically the State of Alabama wasted millions and millions of dollars to build a duplicate school system. When integration comes, many of these new black schools are actually closed because most white Southerners can't fathom sending their children to a school that used to be a black school. So some of these buildings only get used for a decade (or less) and many of them are mothballed at that point as black students are bused to white schools. Very rarely are white students bused to black schools. Many of these buildings still remain in the community. They still exist. Many times after the schools were integrated, they turned these once black high schools into elementary schools or day care centers or community centers or something like that. Rarely did they stay a high school. But they survived. And there are alumni from the black community who deeply have connections to these places and want to commemorate and remember them.

Photo of Drake Middle School

Are there any examples of equalizations schools locally? Here in the Auburn area? 
Here in Auburn there's Drake Middle School. It was a high school at one point for African-Americans. It's an equalization school. It's still a vibrant school sitting in the middle of what is Auburn's largest black community. So, our basic goal is to document these schools and get into the community, discover their stories, build off of this base. There's already a group of people out there who deeply care about these places, but we're trying to organize them in a way that we can launch an effort to help communities think about how to best preserve these places.

What does preservation mean in this context? 
It means that we’re recruiting alternative uses for these buildings. What's a good alternative use for a school building? Sometimes it's still a school, but a lot of times it's thinking about building community centers or using it as a senior center or, in some cases, using it as housing. There's lots of different options out there. 

How many communities have your students met with? Can you talk a little bit more about the process?
Yes. So, we know that every county in Alabama has equalization schools. There's 67 counties in Alabama. It's pretty large deal. To get things started, the Alabama Historical Commission has already documented a few of these buildings, especially in Montgomery County, where there are lots of equalization schools. But my students are digging in deep in Lee County and Macon County to create a guide on how to do research about these schools - how to document them, how to do oral history projects related to them, and how to just gather materials to serve as a template for other communities that are going to then carry on this work themselves. As part of that process, they've interviewed former school superintendents and teachers and students back from the segregated age. They've done a lot of article research getting into the county records. And every time they go to an archive, someone inevitably always asks them what they're doing and through the process of talking, people really become aware of what we're up to.  

Once the students are done collecting all the information, what will they do? 
We've been in touch with a lot of community groups in both counties and during the spring of 2019, we're going to start touring the state and giving workshops and programs to help communities and places like Madison County up in North Alabama, launch their own initiatives. The ultimate goal for all this is to place as many of these properties as possible on the National Register of Historic Places (the Nation's official list of historic buildings in the United States).

What is the significance of being listed on the National Register of Historic Places? 
 If you are listed on the National Registry, you have access to special grants, public funding that properties that are not listed do not have access to. So one of the first steps in preservation is getting a building identified as historic and listed as historic so those community members can then have options as far as how to fund. Because everything unfortunately costs money, you try and figure out how to fund what you want to do. To do that, we're going to develop a state-wide historic preservation nomination or statewide multiple property nomination and what it'll do is it'll be one big report that they can then use to get quicker access to the National Register listing. This is already being done in Georgia and South Carolina and because of that, there are dozens and dozens of these equalization schools that have been preserved and often times turned into new uses, adaptive uses in their community. So we're hoping to do the same thing.

It sounds like the communities that need the resources are able to get them through you and your class, and your students are able to get the experience and hands-on communication skills in addition to building a case about historic preservation. So is this a mutually beneficial endeavor? And how many students are in this public history class?

My public history class right now has 11 students so it's a good, manageable group. We have a graduate program in public history and some undergraduates, and they're working together in groups  kind of competing with each other to see who can do a better job. They've really embraced this. They're gaining the kind of soft skills we're all trying to teach students, which is to pick up the phone and talk to somebody. Go knock on a door every now and then to get the story. Get out there in the community and let people see what college students are doing because I think the public has an image of what we do, and then there's the reality of what we do. So yeah, it's a win-win for everybody because they're meeting new contacts and developing new networks. They're gaining all of this experience and skill that they'll need to have to enter into the professional world of public history. But, more importantly, they're growing as people, because a big part of public history really is figuring out how to work better with people. That seems like an obvious skill, but it's one that you have to work on your whole life.




Last Updated: November 28, 2018