Education in Decatur was rigidly segregated during the Jim Crow era, as it was in communities throughout the South. Decatur’s first public school for black children was a Freedman’s Aid Society school, established during Reconstruction in what was then Old Town’s St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church (which later became King’s Memorial). A private school for black children, the first in Morgan County, was established around the same time at St. Stephens Primitive Baptist Church. However, no city schools for black children existed until 1883 when Matthew H. Banks and others successfully petitioned the Decatur City Council for the creation of a “free colored school.”
The school started out in a “makeshift building” on the corner of Lafayette and Wells, and later moved to St. Paul’s while a permanent structure was built. A dedicated facility on McCartney and Cherry Street, complete with five classrooms and a second-floor auditorium, finally opened in 1893 under the supervision of the Decatur Board of Education and direction of a “Negro board of trustees."
In 1924, under the leadership of Principal James E. Pickett, a new school was built on Cherry Street. A twelfth grade was added in 1927, and four students (Gladys Baker, David McCrary, Bennie Outlaw and Ozie Lee Sanford) graduated the following year from what was known by then as Decatur Negro High School.
By the time of the Scottsboro trials in the early 1930s, the Cherry Street school had a staff of eight teachers and around 500 students. Clifford Joel Hurston, brother of author Zora Neal Hurston, became principal in 1935 and welcomed Tuskegee Institute president George Washington Carver to Decatur to address that year’s graduating class. Carver delivered his baccalaureate speech to “an integrated audience of more than 1,000” at Decatur’s Princess Theatre. While he was in town, Dr. Carver also attended dedicatory services for Carver Elementary School, the first school in Alabama named in his honor.
Segregation-era law stipulated “separate but equal” educational experiences for black and white students. But in practice, retired Old Town teacher Etta Freeman recalls, black and white schools in Decatur were “so different, it was night and day.” The sports uniforms and textbooks used by black students, for instance, often came secondhand from the white schools.
“They gave the black school one roll of toilet paper a month… The books and everything was different… But we did the best we could with what we had.”
In 1948, the high-school and elementary programs separated, and Decatur Negro High School relocated to a temporary facility near Highway 20 comprised of “old army barracks from the Courtland airbase.” Construction of a permanent high school, funded through the passage of a new sales tax, was completed in 1954 and the rechristened Lakeside High School opened the following year.
Lakeside closed in 1969, after federal civil rights legislation put an end to segregated schools, and about 225 Lakeside students (including author and historian Peggy Towns) were transferred to one of Decatur’s two previously all-white high schools. Today, the old Lakeside building is home to a magnet school, named in honor of Lakeside’s first and only principal, Leon Sheffield.
Head east on Church Street from the north side of Leon Sheffield School, and tap the button below to visit the next tour stop.