Editor’s Note: Weld photographer David Garrett went out to take pictures of a new school, but found himself equally fascinated – maybe even more so — by the old one being torn down right next door.
Both schools were Huffman High, and as Garrett watched a crew demolishing the old school to make room for a football stadium, an idea grew.
“I consider myself a history buff and — probably to my chagrin — find historical value in everything,” he said. “Because I live in Birmingham…and Scott [Michelfelder], my partner, he works for Birmingham City Schools, and he’s worked there for many years, I have been very familiar with the school closings and properties that are still owned by the city. I just started to question him about it, ‘What’s happening to these schools?’ and he said, ‘Nothing, they’re just sitting there.’ I wanted to see them, so he just took me around and I just started photographing these schools.”
What the photographer found were striking reminders of the city’s past, relics of earlier times exhibiting just traces of their former status as learning centers for untold hundreds of students from throughout the city.
“A lot of them have not been torn down,” Garrett said. “But they’re just kind of rotting away, and I wanted to [photograph them] for historical purposes, because regardless of whether people consider them a great piece of architecture…these buildings were very much a part of people’s lives.”
Since he began shooting last fall, Garrett has thus far photographed 12 schools in different parts of the city. He’s got quite a few more to go. “There are still some on my list that I would love to get. This to me is a work in progress.” There are more than twenty such schools, Garrett said.
“I wasn’t trying to make a statement, as a negative statement towards Birmingham City Schools. It was more of just trying to, again, for historical purposes, capture it, kind of honor it, because they served a purpose for many years.”
Schools he has shot so far include Powell — the oldest school in the city, which burned, but still may be saved — Elyton, which takes its name from the city’s origins, as well as Ensley High, McElwain Elementary and North Birmingham Elementary.
“The one that really stands out to me, and probably because it looks like it came from central casting – it looks like they asked for a dilapidated school which looked really scary to make a great photo – was McArthur School over by Carraway,” Garrett said.
Elyton, one of the oldest school buildings in the city, “was one of the last schools I shot,’’ Garrett said. “I loved that school. You walk up these massive steps. There were holes and a lot of vandalism.” Such schools built in the 1920s are “these majestic buildings, which despite all the neglect, still have a presence.”
European countries where he has traveled have done more to preserve their architecture, Garrett said. “We just tear down and build bigger and better – or what we think is bigger and better — and I just wish these schools could be saved.”
As the city of Birmingham wrestles with decisions involving school consolidation and closings, Garrett’s project demonstrates what has happened historically when Birmingham schoolhouses close their doors for the last time.
In any town, schools become passages for history and historical figures; in Birmingham, these old buildings are silent witnesses to years of struggle, growth, vision, regret, and more. If their walls could talk, what tales they could tell.
At least the end of their tales may be glimpsed through Garrett’s camera lens.