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A Small Pin and a Big Dream

May 26, 2011

One of the things I enjoy about being the director of the Birmingham History Center is that I get to occasionally go out and speak to various civic groups and clubs.  Several months ago, I gave a brief presentation at a meeting of the Birmingham Post Card and Collectibles Club at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood.  Robert and Carolyn Kolar organize the meetings which include a talk by a guest and a swap session where members show their latest “finds.”  Walking around the room, I was amazed by the neat items, many related to the history of the area, which the members had collected.

A. H. Parker High School Football Pin

One gentleman in particular, James Ferris, had an outstanding collection.  As I was browsing through his stuff, I was particularly interested in a small plastic football pin (pictured).  It was about 2.5 inches tall and had the word “Parker” stamped on the player’s thigh.  I knew it was from A. H. Parker High School, probably from the 1940s or 1950s.  As a newcomer to the region, I have been trying to learn as much as I can about its history.  The only thing I knew was that at one time A. H. Parker High School was the largest Negro high school in the world, in other words not a great deal of depth for someone who claims to run a History Center.  I told Mr. Ferris that I liked the pin, then went home and forgot about it.

A couple of months later, Mr. Ferris came to the History Center with a donation – the Parker football pin.  My first thought was “Cool.”  My second thought was I better learn a little more about this subject.  What I found was another in a long list of Birmingham stories involving courage, determination, and success against long odds.

A. H. Parker (1870 - 1939)

The namesake of the school and its first teacher/principal, Arthur Harold Parker, was born in a racial no-man’s land.  His father was the son of a white man and a Chickasaw woman, his mother was a former slave.  Born in Ohio, he was unable to attend college, instead took up his father’s trade as a barber and moved south, eventually landing in Birmingham in 1887.  Taking the teacher’s examination, Parker was hired as one of the first African-American teachers by School Superintendent, John H. Phillips. 

In 1900, the school board opened the first African-American high school in Birmingham.  Parker was hired as the first teacher and principal.  Known early on as simply the Negro High School and later as the Industrial High School, the school’s first class of 15 graduated in 1904. 

Parker gravestone at the Oak Hill Cemetery

Parker stayed on as principal of the school for 39 years, retiring at the end of the school year in 1939.  He died that August and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.  The school was renamed the A. H. Parker High School in his honor. 

From a first class of 19 students in 1900, the school expanded, moving to a new and much larger building in 1924.   In 1946, 3,761 students attended A. H. Parker High School, making it the largest school of its type in the world.  In 1953, the school became accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges.  Notable graduates of A. H. Parker High School include the current Mayor of Birmingham, William Bell, Arthur Shores, noted attorney and the first African-American City Council member in Birmingham, Nell Carter, singer and actress, Oscar Adams, former member of the Alabama Supreme Court,  and Avery Parrish, jazz musician.

"My dream was to see built in Birmingham a high school for Negro boys and girls that would be second to none in the South. That dream has come true." A. H. Parker

It is just a small plastic football pin.  From it I learned about one man’s quest to provide a quality education for the young people of his community.  Doesn’t this story illustrate the importance of saving the artifacts from our past?  That is the reason that the History Center is here.  No matter how small or large, all of the artifacts that we collect tell compelling stories.  They remind us of where we have been and help show us where and who we are.
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