An abridged version of this article originally appeared in the May 19 issue of Weld.
Donna Edwards Todd can recall the months in 1964 when she pondered where she would attend high school. She had a few choices for where she would spend her next four years— nearby schools included West End High School and Wenonah High School, but her first choice was A.H. Parker High School. “I had cousins who went to Parker,” she said.
Her mother, however, had a different idea: Ullman High School. And Todd’s first choice took a back seat when she got an up-close look at the school on Seventh Avenue South.
“When I saw Ullman, it was just a breath of fresh air,” she said.
Todd, who had to pay 10 cents a day to ride the bus to Ullman, said the choice to attend the high school was the right one because there the teachers pushed students to learn, work hard and go to college.
Now, Todd serves as the director of the Ullman High School Museum and Archives, which aims to preserve the history of the school that has roots dating back to 1937. The museum and archives is located inside the historic former school building now owned by the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The museum shares space there with UAB athletic offices.
Back in 2013, UAB approved dedicated space for the museum and archives. Todd said talks continue with the university to use even more space in the building for the museum. Todd herself envisions a place where visitors can track the history of the high school through collected photos, documents and memorabilia. She would also like to see a traveling exhibit that she could take around to local schools to share with current students. “We want to tell the Ullman School story,” she said.
Notable namesake, teachers and alumni
The Ullman School was built in 1901. It was initially an elementary school for whites only.
Todd said that in the early 1930’s blacks in the city called for the opening of another high school and Samuel Ullman, a member of the city’s school board, agreed. The school would become the namesake of Ullman, who had been born in Germany but moved to the state in 1884, before making many contributions to the city’s educational landscape.
In 1937, according to the Ullman High School Alumni history, the school opened to black students in 9th grade. Black students were not satisfied with just one grade at the school, so additional grades were added over the years, along with more classes that ranged from mechanical drawing to sewing and cosmetology. By 1952 the high school saw its first graduating class.
Birmingham native Sadie Crews Jackson started Ullman High School the following year as a freshman. “I lived next door to what would become the band room,” she said.
“I was fortunate to be zoned for the school,” Jackson, 76, said, “We had teachers there who were concerned and cared about us being prepared for the future.”
Jackson, who was in the choir and played clarinet, noted that W.W. Handy, nephew of jazz great W.C. Handy, served as a band teacher during her time at the school. Many of the city’s most beloved educators spent time working at Ullman including George C. Bell, who served as the first principal at the school.
Civil rights pioneer Odessa Woolfolk, who was instrumental in the creation and operation of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, taught at the school along with Wesley Rice, father of Condoleeza Rice.
Jackson recalled another teacher, Cleopatra Goree, who taught English at Ullman before moving to Woodlawn High School just as it was being integrated, as another inspiration. Goree, like Woolfolk, was known to support student involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and motivated them to civic and academic work.
Jackson, who went on to attend Daniel Payne College and Alabama State University, said she wants to see the leaders and teachers at the school honored by the museum for the impact they made on the lives of the students.
Todd echoed Jackson’s sentiments. She said the teachers pushed the students, even when many expected blacks to drop out of school in favor of work. Todd said students were encouraged to produce musicals and other shows. Todd, who was a part of the drama club and modern dance club, went on to graduate from Hampton University and the University of Illinois with degrees in dance.
“Everybody there expected you to go on and do great things,” Todd said. “People left Ullman and did phenomenal things.”
Todd pointed to Ullman alumnus Samuel J. Murray, a 1967 graduate who was drafted by the New York Knicks before he decided on a career in the U.S. Air Force.
Murray recalled his years at Ullman High School fondly. He too credited the teachers at the school with preparing him for a varied professional life that included a stint as a professional basketball player, a pilot of B-52 bombers and a pastor.
“I was instructed by some of the best teachers I have ever had at Ullman,” Murray said, adding that the people who worked at the school deserve to recognized.
Murray said he was voted “Most Outstanding Athlete” in his graduating class. He played football and basketball and ran track and cross-country.
After graduating from Ullman, he went on to Tuskegee Institute — Now Tuskegee University — and in 1972 he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force. Murray recently loaned one of his flight suits to the Ullman High School Museum and Archives.
More contributions needed
Todd said along with financial contributions, the museum is in need of more artifacts that tell the Ullman story. She is appealing to the more than 800 graduates of Ullman High School to donate items to the museum and archive.
So far, Todd said, she has 50 photos, some school T-shirts, diplomas, a prom dress, majorette uniform, a dress a student made in one of the sewing classes at the school and Murray’s flight suit. She said the items can be donated or loaned to the museum.
For information on the museum and ways to help, call Todd at 975-9993.