One day when I was in the fourth grade, I had been catching butterflies in the front yard when my mother called me onto the awning-covered porch of our house in Bush Hills. I remember when I climbed up the steps that were too big for my nine-year old legs I could see the cars carrying iron ore across the top of Red Mountain where The Club is today. Our house was up the hill from Rickwood Field and only a block from where I walked every day to school at the Woodrow Wilson Grammar School.
My mother, who taught at Lakeview Elementary, was so excited that afternoon. A letter had arrived inviting me to the Special Class at Elyton Grammar School. Several weeks earlier, our teacher at Woodrow Wilson had taken several of us aside and led us into another room where they gave us a test that lasted all morning. Each of us had a test-giver individually asking us questions about math, grammar, and “common sense.” I remember one question: if you lost your purse in a round field, how would you go about finding it? For the math questions, we had to add and multiply in our heads. I remember being really tired, really bored, and not having any idea what it was all about.
But that day on the porch my mother was so proud and pleased because I was one of 20 fourth graders from all over Birmingham selected for this honor--for scoring over 120 on an IQ test and meeting some other criteria which I don’t remember. I had no idea what an IQ was. I was not sure what it meant, but I knew I did not want to go to a different school. But my mother wasn’t asking and I wasn’t arguing. I knew that what she wanted was what was going to happen. The Birmingham Public Schools were also very proud of what they considered innovative accommodations for advanced students. Never mind that we had to leave our friends and neighborhoods.
When I found out that the “special” class meant above-average intelligence, I was even more sure I did not want to go. I remember my mother driving me to the school for the first time. Above the door, engraved in the concrete, it said “Elyton School.” I remember staring at the letters very hard. I knew it would be very embarrassing if I could not spell Elyton, since I was supposed to be so smart. Fortunately, spelling was not part of the IQ test.
Of course, even then I knew what Elyton was, that it was very important in the founding of Birmingham. In fact, the town of Elyton (formerly know as Frog Level) was incorporated in 1821, which means it predated its future big brother, Birmingham, by more than 50 years. Birmingham was founded by the Elyton Land Company in 1871, and the town of Elyton was annexed to Birmingham in 1910.
When I was a girl it still had a rural feel.
To get to Elyton Elementary, I had to take the street car every day (for 7 cents) to the Elyton Station, which is no longer standing, but used to be a train stop on the way into Birmingham from the west. From the Elyton station I had to walk down a dirt road across the railroad tracks and through a shantytown that represented the poorest neighborhood in Birmingham. Today I am surprised that I walked by myself from the station to the school on Tuscaloosa Avenue. It was quite different from walking one block on a sidewalk with my brother and friends to Woodrow Wilson. But back then, nobody seemed to think a thing about it. I remember the people waving to me from their porches as I walked by every morning, but we never spoke.
At the intersection of Third Avenue and Center Street was a big oak tree. About twenty feet up there was a sword protruding from the tree. I remember wondering how it got there. The story was that a Confederate soldier as he was heading off to war stuck in the sword when the tree was young. The sword remained in the tree all those years as it grew. Each year the sword got higher and higher up the tree. I always looked for it when we drove down Third Avenue.
When I arrived at school I had to wait in the auditorium for the bell to ring telling us to go to our class. That was the only time we were mixed with the regular students from the neighborhood. They all knew each other and talked to each other, but we never did know any of them. We special students were segregated the rest of the time in our own classrooms where we always stayed together. We even had our own time to play on the playground.
In the regular classes there would be up to 50 students. In our classroom of 20, we had our own space and we were given time to read what we wanted and pursue our own interests. We also got special attention. Ms. McIntyre even kept me after school trying to teach me to spell. For writing, each student had a desk with its own ink well. Nathan Seales sat behind me and would dip the end of my pigtails into the inkwell. When the teachers got mad at him, they would call him by his full name. “Nathan Bedford Forrest Seales, can’t you learn to behave?!” We were special students. But, more importantly, it was a special historical place. For me, it will always be where Birmingham started. It was the streetcar and the Elyton Station and the sword in the tree that made Elyton Elementary special to me.
Stephen Humphreys is the owner of Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com