Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County.
The City of Girard was incorporated in 1833 and the City of Phenix City was incorporated in 1897 – the two were neighboring cities meeting at the Russell County and Lee County lines. The two were so entwined that on August 9, 1923 they incorporated as one city – Phenix City. With that incorporation, the two cities combined their fire departments, police departments, public works departments, etc.
All of this was done without much controversy.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the school boards of the two cities.
When the two school boards combined, there were three members on the new board from Phenix City’s former board and two from Girard’s former board. The number of members was determined by the legislation that created the new city.
The peaceful transformation of two cities into one went well until May 15, 1924 when the new combined school board met in called meeting, without public notice, at the offices of Blake’s Coal Yard in Phenix City with the stated purpose of electing teachers for schools in the old Girard section schools and Phenix City section schools.
In attendance that day was the full body of the board – A.H. Vann and C.H. Jones, members of the former Girard Board of Education for eight years each and C.H. Gunter, president of the Phenix City Board of Education; J.H. Blake, secretary of the Phenix City Board of Education, and C.B. Stillwell of Phenix City. Also present was Phenix City Superintendent L.P. Stough.
A proposition was submitted by Vann to have the members of each former board recommend the teachers for each school and to have the whole board elect them. So, the board took up the recommendation of the Phenix City members first. The teachers were recommended and then received the vote of all five members. Then the Girard members made their recommendations. Here is where the controversy began. The Phenix City members voted against the recommendations and they were defeated by a 3-2 vote. Then Stough read a list of teachers and the list did not include Professor and Mrs. Lunceford, the Girard High Superintendent and his teacher wife, and some of the other teachers. The former Girard board members insisted the teachers and Lunceford’s be retained. Their words fell on deaf ears and the list presented by Stough was approved by a 3-2 vote. The Phenix City group had used a well-oiled steamroller to make the changes which were to take place when the schools resumed in September. The Girard members were “dumbfounded by the scrubby treatment accorded them, but being in the minority, were, helpless,” stated a story in the Phenix-Girard Journal of May 22, 1924.
In that same story, it stated, “But their surprise and amazement were nothing as compared to the citizenship of Girard when they read the paper Friday morning that their school had been wrecked by the action of three men drunk with a little transient authority, not only for removing the teachers that had brought it up to its present standard, but electing as principal of the Girard High School a man who is said not to possess the qualifications required by the State for the supervision of an accredited high school.
“Under the control of Mr. Vann as chairman and his associated on the Girard board, Mr. Lunceford, his wife and his excellent teachers had co-operated to build up the Girard school into an accredited high school; the pupils of which can enter any other Alabama school or college without examination.”
The people of Girard refused to sit idly by and see their school wrecked by the “petty jealousy of three Phenix City men, who unable to raise their own school to the Girard High level, are doing their best to destroy the Girard schools by putting at the head of them at a greatly increased salary, a young man who has the past year taught the fifth grade in the Phenix City schools, whom we are informed has no administrative certificate, and very little experience of any kind.”
Adding flame to the fire was the qualifications of the former Phenix City board members. The chairman, Gunter, was an office worker at the Hardaway Company who had been on the board two years who was said to have remarked he should resign from the board as he did not have the time needed to attend meetings and who had never visited a Girard school.
Blake had recently gotten out of the U.S. Army and been on the board four months and was serving as its secretary. He had visited Girard schools once and is so undoubtedly qualified to select teachers. Stillwell had been on the board a year and had been a maker of coffins for several years and possessed the same qualifications to select teachers as his Phenix City associates.
In addition to all that, the Girard schools were certified to teach students through the eleventh grade. The Girard schools charged a small incidental fee to cover all costs to pupils, including books, fuel, paper, pencils, etc. Phenix City schools teach only through the ninth grade, charge the same or a higher fee and the pupils still have to purchase their own books and supplies.
Over 200 Girard citizens presented a petition to the Phenix City Council in hopes of having the school board members from the city reverse their votes and rehire the teachers already working at the Girard schools along with Professor and Mrs. Lunceford. Phenix City Mayor Gullatt made an earnest statement asking that the Girard people get relief. One council member asked that nothing be done and one asked that the petition be forwarded to the school board for action. The petition was sent to the school board as suggested.
I.I. Moses, the owner and Publisher of the Phenix-Girard Journal, wrote a letter for the front page of his newspaper to Stough, the Phenix City Superintendent, asking him to explain his reasons for the changes in the Girard schools. The letter was as follows:
“Dear Sir: There has been such continues and loud protest over the action of three members of the Phenix City Board of Education in dropping Prof. Lunceford from his position of Supt. of the Girard High school and filling the place with a comparatively inexperienced young man that I would like to have a statement from you as to why the change was made, for publication, in order that I may give your side of the matter to the public.”
The school board’s action continued to be criticized over the next several weeks in the newspaper and the same letter from Moses was repeated at the end of articles, but Stough never offered an answer to the question. The changes remained in place and the protests settled down over time as other matters took over the headlines of the newspaper.