Updated on 2017-03-03 15:28:00

A Significant History by Minna Roth Hill

"To follow time's dying melodies through and never to lose the old in the new." - Sidney Lanier, Symphony

Original School

The current Sidney Lanier High School located at 1756 South Court Street was not the first Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery, Alabama. The old Sidney Lanier High School was constructed on McDonough Street from 1909 to 1910 and had the distinction of being the first coeducational public high school in Montgomery. The doors of the old school opened on September 26, 1910, with four-hundred, seventy-eight (478) students, and fifteen (15) faculty members. The school could accommodate six-hundred (600) students, but by the early 1920's, the student population was almost twice that number. The school's namesake is taken from the poet, musician, and critic, Sidney Lanier. He was born in Georgia in 1842 and after his service in the Confederate Army lived in Montgomery from 1866 to 1867.

Sidney Lanier High School remained the only public high school in Montgomery until 1922. Montgomery County High School was built in the Cloverdale community and quickly picked up the nickname Cloverdale. At the time, the incorporated village of Cloverdale was not part of the city of Montgomery, however, some city students chose to attend Cloverdale High School instead of Lanier. This temporarily relieved the student population overload at Lanier. Soon, Lanier was overcrowded again. The Board of Education saw the need to build a new facility that would accommodate the larger Lanier student body and allow growth for future classes.

In 1927, the village of Cloverdale became a part of the city of Montgomery, and Cloverdale High School became part of the Montgomery school system. Once the new high school was completed, the city had planned to convert the 7-4 system into a 6-3-3 system with six years of grammar school, three years of junior high school, and three years of high school. Cloverdale became Cloverdale Elementary and Junior High School, and the old Sidney Lanier High School became Montgomery Junior High School. The name of Montgomery Junior High School was changed in November of 1932 when the Board of Education voted to name the school in memory of Dr. Benjamin James Baldwin, who was past president of the Board of Education and who was a Board of Education member when the old Sidney Lanier High School was built.

The story of a football game between old Lanier and Cloverdale in 1928, in which the winning team would determine the name of the new school, has been deliberated for several generations. After years of Montgomerians disputing the issue, Dr. Wesley Phillips Newton, Jr., a 1943 Sidney Lanier High School graduate, a historian, and the author of Montgomery in the Good War: Portrait of a Southern City, 1939-1946, decided to research the matter. His findings as to the truth of the story were that the story cannot be proven one way or the other. There was indeed a game in 1928 between Lanier and Cloverdale, and Lanier did win, but Dr. Newton found nothing in the 1928 or 1929 yearbooks of Lanier or of Cloverdale to prove or disprove the story. Mr. J. Samuel McCants, who had been the principal at the old Lanier, went to the new Lanier as its first principal. Although he would not give up Lanier's colors, blue and white, he ordered the draperies and the curtain for the stage in the auditorium to be made in red, Cloverdale's color, to appease the Cloverdale students who had been transferred to Lanier.

Million Dollars

An article that was published in the Montgomery Advertiser on September 12, 1929, was headlined, "Handsome New Sidney Lanier High School on Court Street is Idealization of Educational Dream; Complete in Every Detail of Equipment." The new Sidney Lanier High School, or as it was dubbed due to its cost, "The Million Dollar School," opened its doors to students in September of 1929, just a few weeks before the Stock Market crashed.

As classes began in the new Sidney Lanier High School in the fall of 1929, there were over fifty candidates for the football team. Sports programs included football, basketball, tennis, hockey, tumbling, and acrobatics. The band program, which had begun in 1922 at the old school, under the direction of Mr. Billy Hrabe who had played with John Philip Sousa's band, and the ROTC program, which had its beginnings at old Lanier in 1916 under the National Defense Act, were transferred to the new building.

The Board of Education was unable to provide funds to furnish the school grounds with shrubbery, so Mr. McCants saved pennies from his budget, and with the help of many individuals, was able to plant trees and flowers around Lanier. A rose garden was planted along the fences, a windbreak of pine trees was planted behind the athletic field, and a double row of gardenias was planted, outlining the semi-circular drive in front of the school. Other trees, which had been brought by students from home, were planted on Arbor Day in 1932. Most of the gorgeous foliage at Lanier did not last through the Depression, however, due to the lack of workers who had the time to donate their services and due to the high cost of water during that period of time. The Vanguard, the earliest student newspaper at the new building, was dropped during the worst part of the Depression, and the Oracle, Lanier's annual, was not published in 1932. In January of 1933, the schools in Montgomery were closed when the Board of Education announced that there would be a decrease in teachers' salaries by one-third, but this problem was remedied a week later, and the teachers and students returned to the schools.

The Depression did create some positive effects at Lanier, however. Since employment was difficult to procure, an increasing number of high school aged students remained in school. Distributive Education and Diversified Occupation courses were created during the Depression years when it became necessary for students to both work and attend classes. Despite the Depression, Lanier grew and was the pride of Montgomery. Lanier's faculty had doubled, and student enrollment had greatly increased. Many new departments were created at Lanier, and clubs and organizations began to flourish. In 1938, at the meeting of the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, it was said that Lanier, "is one of the few high schools which is neither warned or advised of any shortcomings."

As the New Deal was enacted, more and more job opportunities in Montgomery began to appear, and the population of Montgomery increased rapidly. War drums also stimulated Maxwell Field, and new jobs were created there. As a result, many newcomers came to Montgomery from rural Alabama locations and elsewhere. Thus, Lanier's student body increased, causing more expansion of Lanier's faculty and programs.

World War II

At the onset of World War II, many Lanier students joined the military. Lanier went into full swing with an expanded ROTC program and with student involvement in the war effort. The school's second newspaper, The White and Blue, ceased to exist during the war due to the paper shortage. Some former Lanier students lost their lives in service to their country during World War II, as well as in the Korean War and subsequent wars throughout the years. Sidney Lanier High School displays a Roll of Honor of the many former Lanier students who have served our country in the armed forces. Among those Lanier students who were killed during World War II were Homer S. Gentry, class of 1938; Edward Doherty Bowman, class of 1941; Verbon C. Sanders, class of 1942; and Leonard Travis "Tobie" Tobias, class of 1944. Ed Bowman had been the drum major at Lanier who had entertained the crowds at Cramton Bowl half-time shows. Verbon C. Sanders was awarded the Silver Star for actions during World War II. Thankfully after World War II, there were many returning students who had served in the war but had not finished their education. Lanier initiated a program that was specially designed for these returning veterans so that they could finish their courses and receive their diplomas.

As the 1940's came to a close, Lanier prospered. A third student newspaper, The Blue and White, began publication, which continues to this day. By the early 1950's, Lanier had more than sixty-four clubs and organizations, and a Director of Activities was created to coordinate them. The various departments at Lanier held annual galas and celebrations. The Music Department produced various programs and concerts, the Band Department gave an annual spring concert, the French Club held a Mardi Gras each year, the Spanish Club threw an annual Fiesta, and various other clubs held events. Special assemblies, downtown parades, football games, and dances, as well as Homecoming, with the selection and crowning of a queen and her court, kept students captivated.

Lanier's auditorium was the second largest auditorium in Montgomery in the early 1950's and had the capacity to seat 1,680 people on the main floor and in its spacious balcony. With its excellent acoustics, many prominent entertainers performed on Lanier's stage, including Katherine Hepburn, performing in "The Philadelphia Story," Gertrude Lawrence, performing in "Skylark," and pianists Peter Nero, and Ferrante & Teicher. Traveling shows, musicals and operas from New York, including "South Pacific" and a Lauritz Melchior concert, were also performed at Lanier. The auditorium was additionally used for local dance and piano recitals, among many other performances.

More Schools

In 1954, the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas went unheeded in the south. Due to its Jim Crow laws, the south remained under the premise of separate but equal facilities for black and white students. Meanwhile, the Board of Education felt the need to construct a second all-white high school. Since 1929, Lanier had been the only all-white high school in Montgomery. Robert E. Lee High School was constructed on Ann Street on the east side of Montgomery and opened its doors to students on September 6, 1955. Approximately 800 students entered the new school, with most of the 232 juniors and 173 seniors transferring from Lanier. In 1956, racial tensions in Montgomery increased during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was prompted by Mrs. Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white person.

After Robert E. Lee High School opened, Lanier continued to prosper, and a 1957 Montgomery Advertiser article stated that Lanier was among the top seven high schools in the nation due to its number of National Merit Scholarship finalists. As Robert E. Lee High School grew, so did the football programs there and at Lanier. By the 1960's the rivalry between the two 4-A football teams, the Sidney Lanier Poets and the Robert E. Lee Generals, had become legendary. Lanier's battle cry was, "The Poet's pen is mightier than the General's sword." Each year tickets for the Lee-Lanier game went on sale at the box office at Cramton Bowl months before the game and were sold out within hours. Crowds of 22,000 fans or more scurried into Cramton Bowl for the games, which were usually the last game of the season for both teams. The half-time shows were also an attracting factor to the Lee-Lanier games. Showboats, floats, fireworks, and dazzling band performances entertained the crowds. The rivalry between the two schools became an intense and ongoing feud in the city, with pranks and even violence entering into the equation at times. The city became divided, not only between black and white but also between Lee and Lanier. But many students who attended Lanier during that time look back at this period of Montgomery's history with a fondness for the glory days of the Lee-Lanier games and of their time at the Castle, a name that Lanier is frequently called due to its Gothic Revival architecture. Lanier's architecture also inspired an additional student publication in 1964, and the students published The North Tower, a literary book, that was named for the northernmost tower at Lanier.

Changing Times

One of the most memorable football years for the Lee-Lanier games was 1966. Number 2 ranked Lanier beat number one ranked Lee 10-0 in the final game of their regular season. This was the first year of requiring teams to play in playoff games, and Lee and Lanier were pitted against each other for the state championship. Lanier won the state championship with the final score of 9-7. This was also the first time that high school football had been televised in Montgomery.

Although the times were changing in the early 1960's with the passing of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, the Montgomery school system continued their policy of separate but equal schools. Later in 1964, Arlam Carr, Jr.'s parents, Johnnie and Arlam Carr, Sr., took the Montgomery Board of Education to court, and their argument was upheld by District Judge Frank M. Johnson. In the fall of 1964, the first black students were allowed to walk through the doors of Sidney Lanier High School, the first Montgomery high school to be integrated. The Alabama Journal reported on September 9, 1964, that, "Three Negro teenagers, two girls, and a boy, became the first Negro students to attend Sidney Lanier High School in the long history of the school and they entered into the strange new world without mishap."

One of the female students was Shirley Martin, who is pictured as a senior in the 1965 Oracle and listed as having transferred to Lanier from George Washington Carver High School, one of the two all-black high schools in the city at that time. Susie Sanders was the other black female student, and she entered Lanier as a sophomore that fall. She, too, had previously attended George Washington Carver. The students were excited about entering Sidney Lanier High School, as they had heard of its excellent educational program, but soon learned that they would be considered intruders and outsiders there.

By 1965, Lanier High School saw a slight increase in black student enrollment, and Arlam Carr, Jr. entered Lanier as a sophomore. Arlam remained at Lanier throughout his high school career and in 1968 was one of the first black students to graduate from Sidney Lanier High School.

As an increasing number of Baby Boomers reached high school age, Sidney Lanier High School and Robert E. Lee High School were becoming extremely overcrowded, and as a measure to relieve this overcrowding, the Montgomery Board of Education made provisions to construct another high school in Montgomery. Constructed on Carter Hill Road, Jefferson Davis High School opened its doors to students in the fall of 1968. As happened in the initial stages at Robert E. Lee High School, most of the juniors and seniors who attended Jeff Davis the first year were transfers from Lanier, although some who transferred to Jeff Davis for their junior year chose to return to Lanier for their senior year. With another 4-A high school in Montgomery, the Lee-Lanier game began to dwindle in popularity and the rivalry was never again what it was in earlier days.

Unintended Consequences

The Freedom of Choice Plan was drafted by the Alabama Legislature, and it gave parents the right to select where their children would attend public school. Later that program was challenged in court and the plan was abandoned. The schools in Montgomery were slowly integrated, and by the early 1970's, Lanier saw an increase in its number of black students, but Montgomery schools would not be widely integrated until Judge Frank M. Johnson redrew the boundary lines in what was frequently called "rezoning." This plan, announced during the spring and summer of 1974, drew lines throughout the city and assigned students to schools according to a plan that was intended to help the schools in the system reach balanced racial proportions. The rezoning plan did help to bring about a more balanced racial population in the schools, but at the same time it brought about unintended consequences.

One unintended consequence from rezoning was the alteration of the courses of study offered at the schools. The 1975 Oracle stated that the 1974-1975 school year brought many changes to Lanier. The opening of school after rezoning gave Lanier 800 fewer students, amounting to a two-thirds decrease in the number of students, and eighteen fewer teachers. Many departments lost students, such as Distributive Education, which was left with only six students. A revamping of many of Lanier's academic departments had to take place.

A second unintended consequence that occurred as a result of Judge Johnson's rezoning order was "white flight." White parents who did not want their children attending school with black children moved to another location in east Montgomery or to Autauga or Elmore counties. Some preferred to remain in their homes, and they enrolled their children in private schools which were popping up all over the area. As a result, the white population in the Montgomery Public Schools decreased, defeating the purpose of the ruling. As white flight increased, the Montgomery school district began losing money since the student enrollment decreased. The schools in west Montgomery, including Lanier, became predominately black, and the schools in east Montgomery had a majority of white students.

A third unintended consequence brought about by rezoning was that students were uprooted from their schools and transferred to other schools, leaving behind their foundation and friends. Some, who had attended Jefferson Davis High School for two years, were suddenly reassigned to Lanier for their senior year. One student, who had attended Carver High School for her sophomore and junior years and had been in the Homecoming court both years, was moved to Lanier for her senior year, away from her friends. An article appeared in the Montgomery Advertiser on February 13, 2011, entitled "Former Carver Students: Hard Feelings Not About Race." In this article, Mary Butts Reese relates how she graduated from Lanier but that she would not be attending a Lanier reunion. Instead, she would be attending Carver's reunion, from where she had been forcibly transferred in 1974. She expressed her hard feelings about having been uprooted during her high school years, as have others who were affected by this ruling.

Within a few years, the United States Department of Education began to supply funds to school systems around the country who wished to create magnet programs within their systems to counteract racial polarization. In 1984, the Lanier Academic Motivational Program, or LAMP, was created at Lanier by Ms. Mary George Jester, Lanier's administrative assistant, with the help of Lanier's principal, Mr. Wiley Cutts. The idea was to create a program at Lanier that would draw some of the city's most academically talented and highly motivated students to Lanier, and at the same time help to keep Lanier integrated.

Magnet Schools

In 1986, the Montgomery school system adopted the majority-minority plan. This plan allowed students in the public school system who were in the majority at their school to transfer to another school in the system where they would be in the minority, and busing was provided for those students who opted for this plan. Minority students were not allowed to transfer to another school within the system. The majority-minority plan was phased out for the 1998-1999 school year, and the Montgomery school system returned to a zoning plan where students were required to attend neighborhood schools within their assigned zones. This zoning plan remains in effect today.

The LAMP program resided on the third floor of Lanier and remained there for fifteen years. But as increasing numbers applied for the LAMP program, the school administrators saw a need to move the program to another building that would provide more space to accommodate the student body. In 1999, to the chagrin of many, LAMP left Lanier and moved to the building that formerly housed Loveless Junior High School on West Jeff Davis Avenue. Still called LAMP, the acronym now stands for Loveless Academic Magnet Program, and includes grades nine through twelve. In 2011, the possibility of returning LAMP to Sidney Lanier High School and converting the entire school into the LAMP program was entertained, but currently, LAMP remains at the former Loveless School location.

After LAMP left Lanier, taking a large number of Lanier's white students with it, student demographics changed once again. An Associated Press article that appeared in The Columbian on August 28, 2001, related that Lanier's principal, Mr. Lewis Washington, Jr. could see the segregation efforts of the past thirty years crumbling and he stated that the school was experiencing re-segregation. At that point in time, Lanier had only six white students out of an enrollment of 1,100 students.

21st Century

According to the Montgomery Public Schools website for Lanier High School, in 2004, the student population still reported six white students. One-thousand, one-hundred, ninety (1,190) students attended Sidney Lanier High School and seventy-five (75) teachers were on the staff during the 2008-2009 school year. Of these students, 0.4% were Caucasian, 99.2% were of African descent, and 0.3% were of Asian descent. The school's website states that since the Montgomery Board of Education continues its policy of neighborhood schools, the demographics of Sidney Lanier High School reflect the population of its neighborhood, which is predominately black.

Currently, Lanier includes grades nine through twelve and employs an administrative staff of fifteen, a teaching staff of forty-eight, and a support staff of seventeen. The Core Curriculum is being implemented at Lanier. Courses being taught include English/Language Arts, Math, Science, History, Social Studies, Law & Public Safety, Spanish, Journalism, P.E., Health, JROTC, Art, Driver's Education, Career Technical Education, Choral Activities, and Special Education. The school website states that Sidney Lanier High School's goal is "to see improved teaching and learning that impacts the lives of Lanier's students academically, socially, and economically beyond their days at the 'Castle.'"

Sidney Lanier High School provides a rich history to the city of Montgomery, to the state of Alabama, and to our nation. Located in both the Cradle of the Confederacy and in the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, Lanier has played an instrumental part in both, organically growing over the years as our society has changed. The history of the school would not be complete without the people who walked Lanier's hallowed halls. The significance of Sidney Lanier High School's people will be the next topic of this paper.