'Firsts' in the Opelika's African-American community
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‘Firsts’ in the Opelika’s African-American Community”

Opelika’s First African-American Church – Bethesda Baptist Church

Five years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Bethesda Baptist Church was formed in 1868 in Opelika.  Those who organized The Bethesda Baptist Church under the leadership of Reverend Father Glenn created a new world where African-Americans could sign their own hymns, offer their own prayers, and give expression to their own feelings of joy and sorrow.  The reason for naming the church “Bethesda” is not clear, but those who were members had their hearts tuned to God’s mind, as they agreed on the name Bethesda Baptist Church which means, “The House of Mercy”.

Opelika’s First African-American Schools

As was true with the white schools, there were several good private schools for African-American children before public schools became a reality.  One ot the first was run by Willie Bessie Brady, one of the most unique, intelligent and gifted women in Alabama.  Without a college education, Mrs. Brady began her private school on York Avenue.  “Miss Bessie” taught in a one room school house with a potbellied stove in the corner.  She taught her charges from grades one through 12 and they learned from handmade benches.  After school attendance laws were enacted,  Miss Bessie had to close her school, but later because of overcrowding at the public school, was allowed to teach with a V Certificate.  Later, she was hired as a kindergarten teacher at the Central Parks and Recreation Center.  This was the first public kindergarten for young African-American children in Opelika.

Between 1910 and 1912, Opelika’s first African-American public school was erected on East Street.  It had then classrooms and held all grades.  East Street High, as it became known, served as the only African-American public school until 1951.  Then the J.W. Darden High School was built on South fourth Street.   East Street High became Carver Elementary School.

Elder Brooks Sr.

Elder Brooks Sr. was born on June 15, 1908 in Lee County.  After attending school in Lee County and later vocational training in Columbus, Ga., Brooks became the first black licensed plumber, and electrician in the Opelika area.  He was also one of the first African-Americans to register as a voter in this area.

Civil Rights Advances in Opelika’s City Government

In 1978, the Lee County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Lee County Voters League, the Lee county Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC), and certain private citizens (Mary Frazier Hunter, Pearlie Mae Hutchinson, and Dr. R.L. Harrington) filed a civil suit in Federal Court (U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama Eastern Division) requesting that the Commission form of government be abandoned and that another form of government be adopted.  The resulting Consent Degree of 1985 between the Lee County NAACP and the City of Opelika to adopt either a Mayor-Council from of government comprised of five council members elected from single member districts.

After passage of a bill by the Alabama Legislature, a referendum was held in 1986 which resulted in the adoption of a Mayor-Council form of government was held in June, 1986 when two African-Americans, John Andrew Harris and George Bandy, were elected to city government for the first time in Opelika’s history.  In 1995 the first African-American female, Patricia A. Jones, was elected to the Opelika City Council.

Note: Information compiled from The Heritage of Lee County, Alabama.

Dr. John Wesley Darden

John Wesley Darden, born Sept. 27, 1876 in Wilson, N.C., was the eldest child of Charles Henry and Dianah Scarborough Darden.

In their book Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine Norma Jean and Carol Darden have this to say about their uncle, Dr. John Darden. “From the age of ten, when he was unable to find medical assistance for his unconscious sister Annie, John had one driving goal, and that was to become a doctor”.

“At the age of thirteen, he was sent by Papa Darden to high school in Salisbury, N.C. Lean years followed as he worked his way through Livingstone College, medical school and an internship in Long Island, N.Y.  His was a long, hard struggle, but when he made it the pattern was established that the younger ones would follow.  Summer jobs mainly on the railroad and ships took John all over the country.  But he always found his way back to Wilson (N.C.) to share what he had seen and learned of the world and to encourage his brothers and sisters in their pursuits.  By the time he was ready to put out his shingle in 1903, Wilson already had black medical service, so John went deeper south, settling in Opelika, Alabama, where as the only black doctor in a thirty mile radius, he was greeted with an eighteen-hour workday.”

“As soon as he could get away he went back to North Carolina to marry Maude Jean Logan.  She was born June 26, 1890”.

“Soon after, John, making calls with his new wife in his horse and buggy, became a familiar sight on the narrow dirt roads around Opelika.”

“John opened a drugstore on Avenue A.  His brother J.B. had just earned his degree in pharmacy from Howard University, so he was recruited as a partner.  The two brothers dispensed prescriptions, and cosmetics, ice cream and a lot of good cheer, and the store became a meeting place for the community.  Local residents tell us that their Sunday was not complete without a stroll to the drugstore for a chat and a scoop of John’s homemade ice cream.”

“Among Dr. Darden’s medical contemporaries was Dr. Homer Bruce.  Dr. Bruce held the black doctor’s skills in high esteem and unusual for their time, the doctor’s frequently called each other in for consultation.  Dr. Yvonne Phillips remembers that Mrs. Darden would invite children to her home for after-church tea parties.  “She spent so much time trying to better our speaking skills and our manners.  She really made us better people.  They were both so interested in the well being of the community, especially the children.  They only wanted the best for all of us---to have a skill and to go to school.”

John died January 10, 1949.  Jean died October 30, 1976.  They are buried in Rosemere Cemetery.

Information compiled from The Heritage of Lee County, Alabama

William Ernest Morton

Dr. W.E. Morton was one of five sons born to the late Reverend and Mrs. Ellis M. Morton on Oct. 10, 1905.  He was educated in the public schools of Dallas and Jefferson counties.  He later attended Selma University in Selma and Talladega College in Talladega.  He received a bachelor of science degree and a master of science degree from Alabama State Teachers College in Montgomery, Ala.  He also

Studied at Teachers college Columbia University in New York, N.Y., on May 13, 1987, during the 104th Commencement Convocation, Selma University conferred on W.E. Morton the Honorary Degree of doctor of humanities.

While working in Indianapolis, Ind., Dr. Morton met and married his first wife, the former Sally May Pruitt Owens.  Following her death, Dr. Morton married Lizzie L. Thomas who also preceded him in death.

Upon moving to Opelika in the late thirties, he became a member of Bethesda Baptist Church.  During his tenure, he was chairman of the Board of Deacons for then years, and held almost every position in the church at one time or another.

Dr. Morton helped to initiate the reorganization of the Auburn District Sunday School convention into the Auburn District Congress of Christian Education, and served as dean for more than twenty years.  He was the past president of the Alabama Baptist Congress of Christian Education.

During his thirty-four years of tenure, Dr. Morton served as principal of East Street High School, and J. W. Darden High School.  He also served as a principal/supervisory principal for Carver and Jeter Elementary Schools.

Information compiled from the Heritage of Lee County, Alabama

Image is from the renovation project of this house
j.w.dardenhouse.jpg
J.W. Darden House nearing comlpletion-Auburn Street in Opelika

EastStreetSchool.jpg

Between 1910 and 1912 the Opelika Colored School was erected by the city on East Street.  The children went there through the tenth grade.   East Street High, as it became known, served as the only black public high school until 1951.  Then the J.W. Darden High School was built on South 4th Street.  East Street High became Carver Elementary.