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Why alums fondly remember Butler High, which closed 50 years ago as desegregation finally came to Gainesville
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Guests sing the school song on Saturday, Aug. 24, at the former E.E. Butler High School in Gainesville. The school celebrated the 50th anniversary since its closing Saturday, bringing together students, teachers and community members from around the city. - photo by Layne Saliba

Emory Turner and the rest of the track team at E.E. Butler High School never had a hurdle to practice leaping over, but they properly learned how to clear one by using a chair in its place.

Apart from those chairs, the school, which served Gainesville’s black students before desegregation, cleared many hurdles during the era of Jim Crow laws. Its short history was celebrated Saturday, Aug. 24, on the 50th anniversary of the school’s closing.

“My hope is that this commemoration is not the ending but the beginning,” Turner, who graduated in 1966, said of the celebration.

The school was constructed on Athens Street in Gainesville in 1961 and opened in 1962 as a brand-new high school for Gainesville’s black students. Even though the doctrine of separate but equal  was overturned in 1954, Butler High was still constructed. Today it serves as the home of Hall County's Head Start program for young children.

“It was just an unwritten law that you stayed in your hood, your section of town,” Turner said. “That was bad in a legal sense, but it was good in a sense of connecting.”

As Virginia Morrison, who graduated in 1968, was looking through some of the memorabilia at the celebration, she couldn’t help but to say, “These were the days.”

“As I walked down the hallways, I could just hear the laughter,” Morrison said. “I could hear the teachers telling us we better get in that line and straighten up.”

She remembered a loving community within the walls of Butler High and said she’d never forget it. Her time at the high school was why she ultimately decided to go into education as a profession. Her favorite teacher, Ruby Walker, was an inspiration to her and many others.

Morrison said even though the celebration landed on the 50th anniversary of the school’s closing, it’s wasn’t just that day that its former students think of it.

“It’s remembered every day,” Morrison said.

Major Nelson, who taught math at Butler High from 1962 until 1968, said the school brought pride to the faculty, staff and administrators, just like it did the whole community.

He was at the celebration to remember those years he spent teaching at the Gainesville landmark.

“Prior to closing, it felt like this was something special,” Nelson said. “And then when it closed, it was a tremendous disappointment to teachers, students and the community.”

As time passed and things around continued to change, he said the community began to accept the fact that the school had closed. But that didn’t mean it forgot about it.

“Every once in a while, we come back for something like this,” Nelson said. “It just never goes away.”

Butler High meant a lot to the students who attended, and Turner was one of many who remembered their time fondly.

“My heart is in those buildings,” Turner said. “Those were the best of times and the worst of times.”

He said most of the students at Butler High were poor, but that was OK because they didn’t know any better. Their shared experiences brought them together and gave the school a sense of community and pride they wouldn’t have experienced anywhere else.

“It was like a large family,” Turner said. “I think we were closer than anybody would have ever imagined.”

Lisa Montgomery, who graduated in 1965, said the celebration Saturday made her even more proud than she already was of the school. Her best memories came from her time with the marching band where she played drums and the oboe.

“All that made me feel like I was a part of the community that we had,” Montgomery said. “And as I’ve aged and gotten older, it has made me appreciate where I came from.”

Back when Turner was at Butler High, he found that community, too. He knew everybody. He knew the students, their parents and their grandparents. The friends he made in high school are still some of his friends to this day.

But Turner said he and his friends shouldn’t have had to go through what they did at Butler High. Separate but equal — although it shouldn't have been in place at the time — was supposed to offer the same treatment to the black students as it did the white students on the other side of town. 

“It was not equal, but that's what made it better,” Turner said. “We got books with the backs off of them with pages missing, but our teachers let us know that we were not going to be excused from this assignment.”

Morrison had the same feelings.

“No matter what you had, they made a way for you to learn what needed to be learned,” Morrison said.

Students and teachers made the most of it. Looking back, they feel better off because of it, and looking forward, they’ll always remember it.

“They imparted us with the thought that we could do anything and we could excel,” Montgomery said. “They pushed us, and that’s what I appreciated.”

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