In 1951 in the midst of segregation, black students in Walker County had a new opportunity to advance their education with the construction of Hill High School — the first and only all-black high school in Walker County.
When two Hill High School graduates heard about the plans to build new duplex-style housing at the site of their old school, they felt compelled to visit what remains of their old halls of learning in hopes of immortalizing a place that was so very dear to them.
More than just a school
Hill High School opened in the fall of 1951 on land given to the Walker County school board by the Baptist Association with the condition that it be made into a school.
An Aug. 8, 1951 letter from then-superintendent F. D. Leake thanked the Baptist Association for the gift and stated that the school, at its opening, would contain four classrooms, an office, two storage rooms, a clinic, boys’, girls’ and teachers’ bathrooms, a janitor room and a steam heating plant. Planned expansions would add an auditorium/gymnasium, lunch room, home economics room, science room and more classrooms.
Though Walker County had a small handful of designated black elementary schools at the time, there was no high school. At the corner of Culberson Ave. and Steele St. in the Linwood community, the newly minted Hill High School was convenient to some, but not all, and many students had long bus rides each school day.
Maxine Suttles Cousin, whose family lived on the north end of the county, beared a 90-minute bus ride each way every day to get to the one high school where she was allowed to go.
To make up for the distances some had to travel and because of the segregated nature of the school, a sense of community sprung up around Hill High School that Cousin and her classmate Alma Jean Suttles Benton, both 1963 Hill High School graduates, remember fondly.
“It was like a little village,” Cousin said. “It was like home.”
Benton was a tomboy in her youth and played on the school’s football team as a quarterback, right alongside the boys. Known as one of “The Three Stooges” by her teachers, Cousin was a social girl and rarely seen without the company of her two best friends.
“They were like family,” she said.
Cousin remembers fondly how, when she didn’t have money to go to the school’s social events, one teacher would always find a way to help her earn what she needed.
“My French teacher, Ms. Washington, would let me iron her clothes for her so I could go to the sock hop or whatever,” she said.
Teachers lived in small houses provided for them near the school. Many local families’ children attended the school. The sense of community was strong, something from a bygone era, she said.
Also strong was the emphasis on learning. Though friendly and familial, the teachers and administrators also made sure to be strict disciplinarians and instill a strong work ethic in their student charges.
“The principal was like the daddy, and the teachers were like the mamas, and you were chest-high then, and you never wanted your teacher to go home with you,” Benton laughed. “They would make you want to learn; they would make you feel like you had to learn.”
Unlike Cousin, Benton attended an elementary school in the same community and knew many of the teachers, parents and other students throughout her school days.
Benton recalled one tragic event in her fourth-grade year when her teachers showed just how deep their care for the students went.
“My house burned down,” she said.
Benton was at school when she noticed smoke billowing from her family’s house, which was only a block or so away.
“I was standing at the window, staring at it,” she said. Benton had no idea whether or not her family was safe and had nowhere to go when school was over, so her teacher, a woman she remembered as Ms. Nance, took her home.
Benton’s family was well, though their belongings had all been destroyed, a particularly devastating thought to a 10-year-old girl who suddenly finds herself with just the clothes on her back.
“The next day, we had a glee club,” Benton remembers, an extracurricular activity to which she had been looking forward. “Ms. Nance took me to the store and bought fabric” to make a new skirt, she said, “and the other teachers pitched in and bought a white blouse and got me shoes.”
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