Hidden figures of Gainesville’s past now have a place of prominence.
Conjured from the shadows of history by 17-year-old Eagle Scout Ashton Dziengue, a 120-foot mural installation near the entrance of the city’s forthcoming Butler Park depicts four educators who served within the walls of the historically all-Black E.E. Butler High School.
Flanking the high school’s namesake, Dr. Emmett Ethridge Butler, are Ulysses Byas, principal of E.E. Butler High School from its opening in 1962 until 1968; Clara Poole, the school’s librarian; Mary Trawick, the school’s curriculum director; and L.C. Baylor, who served as principal during the school’s final academic year, 1968-1969, when Gainesville schools integrated.
Stretching across the retaining wall behind the five figures is a filmstrip on which old yearbook photos will be displayed, capturing “the history that may have been forgotten by some but remembered by the alumni of the school,” Dziengue said.
The project initially began as a 40-foot mural of E.E. Butler by his lonesome, but soon evolved to include the four hidden figures, covering the entirety of the retaining wall, Dziengue said.
To execute the design, Dziengue, a senior at Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School and member of Boy Scout Troop 15 in Gainesville, enlisted the help of several area artists, including Gainesville muralist Fox Gradin and Vision 2030 Public Art steering committee member Allyson Everett.
Gradin specifically helped Dziengue with transferring the mural from a digital design to an outline on the wall for upwards of 60 community volunteers ranging from 4 years old to 70-plus to help paint Saturday, Oct. 15.
Gradin has returned to the mural several times since to ensure each of its subjects look their best as the project nears completion.
While “no part of muraling is easy — not the conception, not the planning, not the execution or the finishing,” according to Gradin, she touted Dziengue for rising to the challenge.
“Ashton was open to learning every step of the way and seems to have handled the stress of a project like this well,” Gradin said. “He came in with a clear vision and found the people who knew how to make it happen. I'm proud to be a part of bringing some attention to these community leaders who have helped shape my hometown. Many of us have heard their names, but don't know their stories. Teaching history through art is a great way to get the story across to a wide variety of people.”
“I never expected it to be this big of a scale,” Dziengue said. “It’s incredibly amazing to see all these people come together to assist me in sharing a piece of this legacy that E.E. Butler lived with the rest of the community of Gainesville. Not just the Black community, but all other cultures.”
Dziengue admitted he wasn’t aware of E.E. Butler or the school that bore his name prior to starting the service project. Through his research, though, the lasting marks Butler’s life and service left on Gainesville came into focus.
Born in Jefferson and raised in Macon, Butler was the first Black physician to receive privileges to practice in Hall County, according to the Northeast Georgia Health System, where he practiced medicine from 1936 until his death in 1955.
Butler was also the first Black member of the Gainesville Board of Education.
“He had to really fight and advocate for these kids to get their education during a time of segregation,” Dziengue said. “He was an involved member of the community. Having him at the forefront (of the mural) shines a light on who he was and what he did.”
Dziengue’s research findings cast a similarly brilliant light on the hidden figures.
The resounding feedback from those who knew Poole maintained “how caring and thoughtful she was,” according to Dziengue, “and how she always held the students accountable in the respect that she almost treated them like her own kids.”
For Andre Cheek-Castleberry, a member of the Newtown Florist Club and E.E. Butler Center steering committee — who also happens to be Dziengue’s aunt — Poole was a beloved next door neighbor and family friend.
“She was just the most kind, warm, loving person — and the best storyteller at Gainesville Middle School (where she taught sometime after the closure of E.E. Butler High),” Castleberry said. “We as students couldn’t wait for the day that our class went into the library to sit at her feet and listen to the stories that she would read to us. She would make the pages come to life.”
Castleberry has fond memories of Baylor as well. A fellow neighbor, Baylor was Castleberry’s principal at Fair Street Elementary, where he served before and and after his tenure at E.E. Butler High.
“(Baylor was) a man who stood tall, who was kind but stern,” Castleberry recounted. “He had total control of the student body there at the elementary school. As I got older, I respected him because I knew him in that particular leadership role.”
Castleberry did not know Byas or Trawick personally, though she said her mother affectionately referred to Byas as “the most amazing principal and leader of his time to students in this community.”
According to Castleberry, the park’s steering committee will be working with the county to install a display containing information on each of the mural subjects’ identity and impact.
“So many successful individuals came out of E.E. Butler High School and went on to do amazing things, and it was because of the support of those four individuals that were there during those times,” Castleberry said. “(They) encouraged, supported, helped, pushed those youth to be great and to go out and spread their wings. I feel like I am a product of them. We are standing on their shoulders.”
Castleberry hopes the mural will inspire visitors to Butler Park to leave their own mark on the community, just like the hidden figures who once called Gainesville “home.”
“When they were doing the work, would they have thought they would be recognized in such an amazing way for anyone who comes past to know who they are? Probably not,” Castleberry pondered. “They did their job not just between 8-5, but until their porch lights may have gone off. It was more than being in a school system, or being a physician to the community. Hidden figures, they do things in silence. They don’t want any recognition, but they are the workers that really get things done — they are amazing listeners and take action.”
Echoed by Everett, “the story of these hidden figures in our community told through this mural highlights how public art is at the intersection of storytelling, history, community engagement and local government. Ashton’s idea has inspired us all. We can’t wait for Butler Park to open, and this mural will gain even more exposure.”
The mural installation marks a historical moment for Gainesville, according to Dziengue, who hopes it will spur a renaissance of artists localizing their ideas and designs.
“It was a process to say the least,” he said. “I can’t wait to see the park and the mural put Gainesville on the map.”