In May of 1865, a diminutive white spinster from Ann Arbor, Michigan, ignited a spark in Athens, Alabama, that today still illuminates lives in Athens and elsewhere. Immediately after the close of the Civil War, Mary Fletcher Wells—with the help of a chaplain of the 46th Wisconsin Infantry—established Trinity School for the education of freedmen. The chaplain’s wife and a Wisconsin soldier were Wells’ first teaching assistants as she instructed hundreds of ill-clothed and ill-fed emancipated slaves, often under the armed guard of the 46th Wisconsin. For most of the next century—until Trinity closed due to court-ordered desegregation in 1970—it would be the sole high school for blacks in all of Limestone County.
For its first three years of operation, Trinity School was under the joint sponsorship of the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission and the American Missionary Association, but by 1869 the WFAC had dissolved and turned its assets over to the AMA, which continued as Trinity’s sole sponsor until the 1940s.
In its 105 years of operation, Trinity had only nine principals. The first six were white northern-born spinsters. The seventh was a white male. The last two were African-American men. Two of those nine—Mary Fletcher Wells and Louise Hurlburt Allyn—served a collective 58 years. During Wells’s tenure from 1865 to 1892, she founded the school; moved it from its first location in a Baptist church to a dilapidated house she called
the castle; supervised renovations of the old building while teaching classes, writing letters for unschooled ex-slaves, and canning fruits and vegetables for winter meals; and went north each summer to speak to potential benefactors about her work in the South. In 1871 she organized Trinity Congregational Church, which met in a part of the old school designated as the chapel until a church could be built in 1876, and it was under her administration that Trinity got its first new school building. All of this Miss Wells accomplished while in virtual social isolation from the white community, and frequently under threat from the KKK.
Perhaps the most glorious chapter in Trinity’s history began with a dark moment in 1879 when the American Missionary Association announced its decision to neither repair nor replace the old school building, by now in such ill repair that it was deemed unsafe. Upon learning of the AMA’s decision, Trinity students and friends rose up almost as one, vowing to build a new school with their own hands, if only the AMA would agree to operate the school and keep Miss Wells in Athens. How could the AMA refuse such a heart-felt plea? The year 1881 saw the completion of a three-story brick building, the joint project of the Trinity School Society, which made the brick by hand, and the AMA.
When that structure burned in 1907, the school was rebuilt just south and west of Athens on the site of Fort Henderson, a Union breastworks stronghold around which had already grown up a significant African-American community. The building sat on the very site where Union and Confederate soldiers had fought less than fifty years earlier. In one of those face-offs, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest engineered the surrender of a Union general by tricking him into believing his troops were vastly outnumbered. It was to this new building that Connecticut-born Louise Allyn came, valiantly leading a rebuilding effort when the school burned again in 1913. The Allyn era at Trinity saw many accomplishments, several of them beyond anything Alabama’s public schools would offer their students for decades to come. In 1920, Trinity added 11th and 12th grades; as early as 1922, a kindergarten for four-year-olds was in place; in 1926, the school year was extended from eight months to nine. It was also in the 1920s that Trinity earned accreditation by the Southern Association of Secondary Schools—possibly becoming the first black school in the South to hold that designation.
Allyn worked hard to break down the barriers between Trinity and the surrounding white community. In 1935 she spearheaded an interracial youth conference which included participants from eight local churches—about a third of them white—and the white, Methodist-sponsored Athens College.
By the time Miss Allyn retired in 1940, the American Missionary Association had turned over most of its graded and normal schools to local school systems, and was in negotiation with Limestone County, Athens City, and Alabama school boards in regard to transferring Trinity to the public school system. Jay Talmadge Wright was hired as principal for the three-year interim before that turnover was to begin. Wright implemented a system of functional education which raised objections from some parents and students, and made protégés of others. Under Wright’s system, every unit of study was to result in a tangible product, the most celebrated of which was the large mural completed by student Ross Baity, depicting the functional education curriculum and the films and literature upon which that curriculum was based.
After Wright’s tenure came Rev. Judson King, a saintly man who, while retaining Wright’s move toward a community school, returned the curriculum to its academic focus. One of King’s strengths was communication with the student’s family. Many a fractious student returned home from school to learn that news of his infractions had preceded him.
Trinity’s last principal, Winfred Ashford, began his tenure in 1956, the same year that the AMA’s gradual turnover of Trinity to the public school system was complete. Little did Ashford realize, when he and his wife Dora came to Trinity from Mississippi Valley College in Greenwood, that he would be the principal who signed the diplomas of the last graduating class when Trinity closed its doors in 1970. In that 14-year interim, the Ashfords would concentrate much of their effort on involving community professionals in Trinity’s educational experience, and in maintaining a close relationship with colleges like Alabama A&M, Stillman, Talladega, Tuskegee and Tuscaloosa, inviting their representatives to Trinity’s annual College Day and arranging for each college to grant at least one scholarship per year to a Trinity student.
Trinity counts among her graduates an army of young men and women who have gone on to remarkable achievements. They include:
- B.F. Foster, one of Trinity’s earliest students, whose career as a minister, teacher and principal in Arkansas and Topeka, Kansas, began in 1880 and spanned three decades.
- Patti Malone, who traveled the globe with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, performing before heads of state.
- Phoebe Fraser, who studied music at Chautauqua, New York, and spent nearly three decades as teacher and missionary in Cherokee, Alabama, before her death in 1931.
- Alice Vassar LaCour, another Fisk Jubilee Singer and a career educator. She and her husband, Paul LaCour, both Fisk graduates, worked for decades as a team in AMA schools throughout the south, he as a minister and she as a classroom teacher.
- George Ruffin Bridgeforth, who became the first black graduate of Amherst, then went on to work with Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver at Tuskegee before taking the helm at the Industrial and Educational Institute of Topeka, Kansas.
- Dean Scruggs Yarbrough, who earned his undergraduate degree from Miles College of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1923; his master’s degree from Springfield College in Massachusetts in 1925; and his PhD in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1934.One of the nation’s first trained Negro social workers, Yarbrough was active in the Urban League in Ohio and New York City in the early 1930s and was Assistant on Racial Problems for the New York City. He also was president of Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee.
Trinity’s outstanding achievers are too numerous to list here, but one group of graduates from the early 1940s might be of particular interest to readers of this article. Studying at Trinity under the influence first of Louise Allyn and next, Jay Talmadge Wright, were a close-knit trio consisting of the late C. Eric Lincoln, who earned degrees from LeMoyne, Fisk, University of Chicago, and Boston University, and who is celebrated as a poet, author, scholar and theologian; the late Charles Tisdale, who graduated from LeMoyne and the University of Chicago, earned respect as a journalist for his coverage of civil rights issues such as the trial of Emmett Till and integration of schools in Little Rock, and used his position as owner and publisher of the Jackson (Mississippi) Advocate to give voice to the disenfranchised; and the late R. Eugene Pincham, who optimistically enrolled at Northwestern University School of Law—the only black student in a class of eighty—at a time when there no black judges, and who devoted himself to fighting injustice during a stellar career that rose all the way to the Appellate Court of Illinois. When Pincham was asked in a 1992 newspaper interview how Trinity’s teachers had influenced him, he answered,
They dared to make a difference. I, therefore, too must dare to make a difference. The world must be made a better place and improved by my presence here.
Like other Trinity graduates before and after him. Pincham carried that spark ignited by Mary Fletcher Wells in 1865, and with it he lit his corner of the world.
This history of Trinity School is based on research which will be published in book form, with proceeds going toward the preservation of the historical site of Trinity School and Fort Henderson in Athens, Alabama.