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‘This is still a civil rights era’: Gainesville residents to share stories of desegregation on film
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Documentary filmmaker Marcquel Woodard sets up lights Thursday, July 7, 2022, at First Baptist Church on M.L.K. Jr. Boulevard as he begins filming the history of E.E. Butler High School and Fair Street School. Dora Nell Cantrell, right, and Sylvia Earls wait to be interviewed for the film. - photo by Scott Rogers

Gainesville City Schools desegregated 15 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. Integrating Black students into White classrooms caused beloved schools to close or reshape, and Newtown Florist Club hopes to capture the complex history of integration in Gainesville on film. 

Leaders of the civil rights organization were inspired to make a feature-length documentary following recent efforts to revitalize the former site of E.E. Butler High School, the city’s Black high school, which closed in 1969 during desegregation.

“We wanted to make sure that we captured the voices of those who had lived and been educated at Fair Street School, at E.E. Butler … the whole educational experience of African Americans on the south side,” Newton Florist Club Executive Director Rose Johnson said. “We felt the need to capture that, because so many young people in the community and people in general don’t know the history, don’t really know the story.” 

Fair Street School opened in 1937 as a regional school for Black students in first through 12th grades.

Linda Hutchens attended Northwestern Elementary in grade school, then Fair Street, graduating from Butler in 1966. Fair Street was so overcrowded for a time that the school would hold split sessions, with some students attending in the morning and the rest in the afternoon, she said. Some students were bused in from surrounding areas like Lumpkin County.

“During the 50s, the county consolidated schools,” Hutchens said. “When they consolidated schools, Black children had to be bused into Fair Street.” 

E.E. Butler High School opened in 1962 and helped alleviate overcrowding. It held grades seven through 12 until its closure in 1969, when integration started and students were bused to Gainesville High. 

Now called E.E. Butler Center, the old high school houses a Head Start program and has plans for restoration using federal funding given to Gainesville City Schools, while construction of neighboring Butler Park is underway and slated for completion this fall after years of delays. 

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Linda Hutchens, left, sits down with Freddie Young-Webb, Sylvia Earls and Dora Nell Cantrell, right, Thursday, July 7, 2022, at First Baptist Church on M.L.K. Jr. Boulevard before interviews begin on a portion of a documentary film on the history of E.E. Butler High School and Fair Street School. - photo by Scott Rogers

Marcquel Woodard, the director of the documentary, said he has been surprised to hear how some former students talk about the time of desegregation.

“The common denominator between all of these people is they didn’t necessarily feel that they needed to integrate,” Woodard said of those interviewed so far. “A lot of these people — they were reading before they even got to school, and this was during the days of segregation. The community was filled with educators, and they didn’t have the opportunity to go to the store across the train tracks, so it forced us to be in our own neighborhoods. 

“Even though we didn’t have the best books, we made the best out of it,” he said.

Directing a feature-length documentary is a first for 25-year-old Woodard, but he has done marketing and video production work for funeral homes, including Wemberly Funeral Home in Gainesville. The film will include interviews and some dramatic reenactments of key events, he said. 

“Getting into this movie, it’s opened my eyes to a lot of things,” Woodard said. “It’s made me see this is still a civil rights era. We’re still fighting for the right to be seen as equal to everyone.”

Hutchens, who is one of the historians for the film, was a trailblazer herself. She was one of the first Black students to attend Gainesville Junior College, which later became University of North Georgia, when it began holding classes in 1966. 

Hutchens graduated from University of Georgia when there were few other students who looked like her. She earned a degree in education and came back to teach at Fair Street in 1970 soon after desegregation began. 

“I’m sure it was different for the students,” Hutchens said. “But by that time as an adult, I was more acclimated, I would say. I don’t remember any terrible incidents or anything as a teacher.”

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Linda Hutchens talks about her school days in Gainesville Thursday, July 7, 2022, at First Baptist Church on M.L.K. Jr. Boulevard as she prepares to take part in a documentary film on the history of E.E. Butler High School and Fair Street School. - photo by Scott Rogers

Rickey Young, 64, another historian for the project, went to Fair Street before desegregation and was bused to New Holland for middle school.  

“It was an OK experience, because you know how students are at the beginning of a school year,” Young said. “All you want to do is you want to get to school, know where you’re going, know whose room you’re in, see where your friends are. Those things didn’t change. The environment did.”

“Expectations were that we were going to go there, and we were going to take advantage of the benefit of a more equal education, although our education wasn’t subpar,” he said. Some Black students skipped grades after their test results came back much higher than White classmates, Young said. 

The organization received a $65,000 donation from Free Chapel to get started on the project, according to Andre Cheek Castleberry, the executive director for the film, and people who want to support the effort can donate to Newtown Florist Club directly. 

The organization plans to release the documentary in early 2023. 

“My children and their children will be able to see the stories that I’ve been (telling) them,” Young said.

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Sylvia Earls takes her place in front of a camera Thursday, July 7, 2022, at First Baptist Church on M.L.K. Jr. Boulevard as she prepares to be interviewed for a documentary film on the history of E.E. Butler High School and Fair Street School. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Linda Hutchens, left, goes over questions she will ask with Dora Nell Cantrell Thursday, July 7, 2022, at First Baptist Church on M.L.K. Jr. Boulevard as she prepares to film a portion of a documentary film on the history of E.E. Butler High School and Fair Street School. - photo by Scott Rogers