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Community says farewell to Fair Street
Tearing down school is 'bittersweet'
This photograph, in the school, shows the 1952 Fair Street High School senior class trip to Washington, D.C.

Related story: Superintendent remembers time as principal,teacher at Fair Street

Fair Street timeline

1936: Tornado razes Summer Hill School
1937: Fair Street is built for black students, grades 1 through 12, at the site of Summer Hill. Some nearby houses were used to house the younger children during some years but the high school students were always in the building.
1957-58: Fair Street wins state football championship
1963: E.E. Butler High School opens
1969-70: Gainesville City Schools are integrated
1969: E.E. Butler High School closes and students sent to Gainesville High School; Fair Street becomes grades 6 and 7 only
1981: Fair Street becomes grades 3, 4 and 5 only
1987: Fair Street becomes grades 4 and 5 only and undergoes first major renovations
2003: Fair Street becomes a pre-K through grade 5 school and begins International Baccalaureate program
2006: Swimming pool filled in and community center built
2007: Fair Street receives official IB authorization
2009-10: Talks begin about renovating Fair Street
2011: SPLOST money goes toward tearing down and rebuilding Fair Street

Dallas Duncan

A majestic oak tree towers over the front lawn of Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School.

The tree survived the tornado of 1936 and stood throughout segregation and integration, while Fair Street served as a school for all primary grades, then just sixth and seventh.

And as the 75-year-old Gainesville school faces demolition and reconstruction in September, the oak tree will be one of many traditions withstanding the test of time.

The tree stood nearby as Summer Hill High School was destroyed by the 1936 tornado, and its principal, a man named Hopper, started Fair Street as a first- through 12th-grade school for black students.

"My mother (Eva Mae Williams-Brooks) was a graduate of the class just prior to the erection of Fair Street," said James Brooks, a member of the Gainesville-Hall County Black History Society.

Brooks attended Fair Street beginning in the 1940s. His mother let him transfer to Fair Street from another elementary school after the "strict disciplinarian" principal left the school.

"I started (at Fair Street) in third grade," he said. "I was a member of the first marching band ... and in my last year I played football."

His most vivid memories of his time at Fair Street include sneaking behind the building to Miss Marie's Sweet Shop and working with his brother to evade all attempts the school nurses made to give them yearly vaccinations. He was the prom chairman his junior year, and after his minor run-in with the principal — he was caught sneaking to the candy store - was able to get a recommendation from him to work for a white family on Green Street.

Fair Street developed through the years not only as a way for students to get involved in the community, but as a way for the school and community to become one.

"I can remember times when everything that happened, happened at Fair Street," said Emory Turner, a member of the Fair Street-Butler High Alumni Association. "It was definitely a community school. If you acted up in school, when you got home you had something waiting on you."

Turner attended Fair Street beginning in the 1950s and graduated from E.E. Butler High School, which opened in 1963, as part of the class of 1966. He saw the glory days of the high school winning back-to-back state football championships and remembers what it was like when the Red Elephants played the Tigers on the home field.

"Even in the afternoons, the playground here was the community playground. We came back to school and played," he said. "Whatever was going on, we hung around the school. It wasn't like you went home to activities. The activities continued once school was out."

He said in those days, Fair Street educated not only Gainesville and Hall County students but also students from Lumpkin County.

"I can't find anyone who says they didn't get a proper education through this school even though it was segregated," Turner said. "All the administration in Fair Street and Butler, the full time they were open, took great pain in making sure that we had up-to-date facilities and we had some of the best teachers there were."

There was controversy surrounding Fair Street's unusual education system. The school spent money on typewriters and science labs for students who, at that time, were thought to grow up "only to be maids and butlers," Turner said.

"The argument became, ‘For what?'" he said. "But the ‘for what' was answered. We were prepared for when the time changed. But that just shows you how the administration thought ahead, a little bit outside the box."

Surviving turbulent times

The times changed in the late 1960s. E.E. Butler High closed when the Gainesville city schools integrated — Turner said there was some debate about the reason for the closing, but most contend it was because of student zoning — and Fair Street became a school just for grades six and seven.

"That was the first time we'd gone to school with kids from other parts of town. It was the first time black and white kids had gone to school together much," said Kim Davis, assistant principal and former student at Fair Street. "It was sort of a melting pot. It was the second year of integration, so there was still a bit of racial tension in town, but we didn't feel it as much. We were so young we didn't really pay attention to it."

Fair Street during the 1960s and 1970s looked a bit different than it does now. Davis said the wings and different academic areas were still there, but the front office area connecting everything was not.

Even then, she said, she noticed the building needed some structural renovations.

During the 1980s, Fair Street changed again. In 1981, it housed grades three through five, and in 1987, just fourth and fifth.

Between those years, now-Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer made her Fair Street debut as a teacher.

"From the very start, Fair Street was a different experience," she said in an email to The Times. "I learned that it is a symbol of hope from earlier generations for their children to become educated and have opportunities that were denied to them. This culture of high expectations, determination, perseverance, and intense pride has carried forward through the years."

By the time Dyer arrived at Fair Street, the school had long been one where generations of families were educated.

"Most of our parents went through Fair Street. It goes back generations," Turner said. "And they still got family going to school here. A lot of the teachers were students prior to being teachers here."

Kendall Thompson attended Fair Street when it was just sixth and seventh grade. Now, she serves as the school's media clerk. Her family's construction business built the pool located where the new community center is now and the stage in the school gymnasium. Her daughter is also a Fair Street alumna.

Marita Collins, now a third-grade instructional support teacher, went to Fair Street in the 1980s. She recalls being afraid to go upstairs to the fifth-grade wing because she thought it was haunted.

"Everybody thought it was the coolest thing to go to Fair Street because of all the cool stuff (Wrigley's) did for us," said DeAnn Smithson, a first-grade teacher who went to the school. "It was just like the cool school even though it was the most dilapidated."

Though Collins said sometimes it doesn't feel real being back in her old school, Smithson said she always saw familiar faces in the faculty.

Brenda Colbert went to the school in the 1960s. Now a fifth-grade teacher, she is finally retiring this year after more than 30 years at Fair Street. She said what struck her most about seeing the school change over the years was the students' attitude toward education.

"Now I see that back then, kids were more conscious of their education," she said.

Building on a strong foundation

No matter the students' attitude, the faculty's beliefs never changed. Fair Street students could go above and beyond and achieve things their parents and teachers never even dreamed of.

In 2003, Fair Street reverted to a pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade school, and the administration had to select a magnet program. Dyer, then Fair Street's principal, remembers telling then-superintendent Steven Ballowe her plan to become an International Baccalaureate World School.

"He looked at me silently for 30 seconds, and I could read his mind," Dyer said. "He knew how difficult it was to meet the standards of this prestigious and rigorous program, and he was worried that the task might prove too difficult. However, for those of us who lived the Fair Street culture and legacy, we never doubted that we could do it."

And in 2007, they did.

But despite the curriculum moving forward, Fair Street was beginning to show its age.

"It's not safe to be in here, I don't think," Collins said. "When we hear rain, we're just like, ‘Oh my God.'

It takes the kids' attention away from school because they're pointing out new leaks."

Davis said the fifth grade subfloor was starting to sink, which did not bode well for the inflexible plumbing pipes lying underneath the building.

The school board knew Fair Street needed to be fixed — and fast — but the economy was beginning to weaken, and funding was less available.

"Due to the rapid growth and need to construct new schools, repairs and renovations were delayed in order to build a new high school, two elementary schools and a new middle school. By 2008, Fair Street repairs and renovations were critical," Dyer said.

After much planning and budgeting, 2011 was set to mark the end of an era. The old Fair Street will come down in the fall and a bigger and better building will be erected in its place, ready to open its doors to old generations and new legacies of students.

"It'll be bittersweet to see this place be torn down," Davis said. "But it's time. It's like a great pair of shoes — you can only put a new heel and a new sole on them so many times before it's time to get a new pair."

To its faculty, its students, its alumni and its community, Fair Street is more than just bricks and mortar. It is hope; it is family; it is tradition.

And that, just like the oak tree forever standing in the front lawn, Thompson said, will never change.

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