Built as a brand-new high school for Gainesville's Black students in the 1960s, E.E. Butler High School was only around for seven years. But the excellence that was fostered and flourished in its hallways, athletic fields and classrooms still permeate 52 years after its closure.
The segregated American public school system was dismantled by the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.
However, the unintended consequences of school desegregation not only led to E.E. Butler’s closure in 1969 but a generation of Black students who experienced a traumatic loss of identity in their new schools, according to alumni from Butler, who shared their stories in a virtual forum hosted by the Newtown Florist Club on Monday, Feb. 22, as a part of the organization’s series of Black History forums.
“The dismantling effect that closing of the E.E. Butler had on the Black community,” said the Rev. Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club and the host of Monday’s forum. “The closing of E.E. Butler had a tremendous, traumatic, psychological impact on my life.”
The verdict in Brown v. Board of Education is one of the earliest victories in the civil rights movement, but as desegregation took hold in Gainesville’s schools, Black students who were leaders, scholars and the face of their academic and athletic programs at E.E. Butler, found themselves in an uncomfortable transition to integrated, predominately White schools.
“We were angry. We felt that at Butler there was a legacy that extended from Fair Street (High School) to Butler,” said Marilyn Dixon, who was a rising sophomore and an athletic star when E.E. Butler closed its doors. “I was very proud to be at E.E. Butler, and it was difficult to figure how to merge the legacy at E.E. Butler to Gainesville High.”
E.E. Butler High School, which opened its doors in 1962 in the middle of the civil rights movement, was an education space reserved for Gainesville’s Black high school students.
The school was dedicated posthumously to Emmett E. Butler in 1963. Butler, a Macon native, opened a medical practice in Gainesville, where he worked until his death in 1955.
The school was constructed while the last class of students was enrolled at Fair Street School, which taught students K through 12. Fair Street closed in 1962.
In its first year of operation in August 1962, E.E. Butler had 515 students and 18 teachers.
In 1969, a Supreme Court ruling in the Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education case ordered immediate desegregation of public schools in the South and subsequently, required Gainesville High to be integrated. Integration led to the eventual closure of Butler that same year.
After E.E. Butler closed, Dixon was assigned to Gainesville High School. Dixon said due to an already-established racial hierarchy, it was hard for new Black students to feel as comfortable.
“When I was doing my class schedules I gravitated toward the African American teachers,” she said. “I had a level of comfort with teachers who looked like me. There was no one in the administration that looked like me.”
Being an E.E. Butler Tiger, donning the maroon and white, is still a source of pride.
Charles Young, spent grades seventh through ninth at E.E. Butler and said there was a sense of solidarity at the school.
“Keep in mind everyone in Hall County who was in the Black community attended Butler,” said Young. “And now there was this separation of our community.”
But Young said the effect of integration combined with the loss of everything built at E.E. Butler led to high dropout rates and teenage pregnancies among Gainesville’s Black high school population.
“All this happened following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 and the draft for the Vietnam War,” said Young. “All of this seemed to be impactful to the Black community, and what we were going through, felt like we had no voice.”
One of the first Black Gainesville residents to integrate the county’s school system was Jackie Mize.
“I wanted to integrate schools so that I could make it easier for those after me,” said Mize. “It was hard. It was my choice, I wanted to integrate for future generations after me.”
For Mize, integrating into Gainesville Middle School led to dealings with acts of overt racism and microaggressions from White students and faculty alike.
“I didn’t know what racism was because I was young and we were around Black people in our community and our parents didn’t want us in town,” she said. “When I walked into that school, I truly found out that I was Black.”
Johnson said that Monday’s discussion was “long overdue” but just the start of future conversations examining how desegregation and integration led to a profound sense of loss and trauma among the former students of E.E. Butler, but the pride and the feeling of excellence that E.E. Butler’s Black students displayed will never fade.
“I loved our school because the administrators and the teachers loved us,” said Johnson. “The ripping away felt so much like a parent being torn from her child because she knows she’ll never see them again.”