Community – A Piece of History

Oct 9 2013

by Whitney Long

Photo credit: Gappa Wise

This photo is the facade of the old high school in my hometown of Elba, AL, from which my dad, brothers and I all graduated. Located in what is affectionately referred to as UCLA (upper corner lower Alabama), Elba is the quintessential Southern town with the courthouse in the middle of “The Square”. It was the central hub of our small town with the high school, located a block or two away, being a close second. The school was a beautiful old brick building loaded with memories of the thousands that walked the halls. Sadly, it was destroyed in a devastating flood in 1990.

Our town was under water… for days. The flood occurred during the spring of 1990 after extended periods of rain. Many residents, including my family, were out of town in the nearby Florida Panhandle because it was Spring Break. As we received word (via our giant bag cell phones… remember those?) and saw it unfold on national news, shock and disbelief set in.

Upon returning home, we found military police patrolling and enforcing a mandatory curfew and the Red Cross was setting up camp. After getting tetanus shot boosters under a white tent set up in a church parking lot and putting on our rain boots, we hit the streets to help family and friends with the recovery efforts. Each step we took brought more and more shocking proof that our surroundings, which we took for granted, were gone and the landscape of our town was altered forever. The entire downtown square and surrounding areas, all located within the walls of the levee, were completely flooded. This included all four schools – elementary, middle, junior and high. Nothing was salvageable.

That is why I am thankful that instead of tearing every bit of the old high school down, great thought was put into preserving this piece of our town’s history. The main entrance was restored and preserved with the sign that still proudly proclaims Elba High School. Looking at the above photo, immediately beyond the bank of entrance doors is a wonderful park and playground that was built within the footprint of the old school. Creative and purposeful thinking, for sure.

Now, when I go home to visit, I take my children to Tiger Town Park (appropriately named for the school mascot) and tell them about my school. I can still picture what was there as if it were just yesterday I was walking thru these doors – the principal’s office, auditorium, library, cafeteria, the Home Ec and Ag building to the left and the junior high wing to the right as well as the many classrooms where I learned so much from a fabulous host of teachers. I can still hear echoes of the alma mater… “Our strong band shall never be broken, formed in Elba High. For surpassing wealth unspoken, sealed by friendship’s ties”. It is especially poignant for me since I graduated from Elba High School the year before in May 1989… the last class to walk these halls as a senior.

My brother took this photo last week at the spirit rally. I love what Friday night football means to a small town. The old stadium lights are shining brightly in the background. It really depicts what my hometown means to me – community coming together and supporting each other, tradition, pride, the gathering of young and old. This reminder of our town’s past is perfectly meshed with the present and future as evidenced by the crowd that gathered for the football team. No wonder Elba spelled backwards is able… she may be small but she is mighty!

As the years fly by and I am raising children of my own in a much different world, I have come to appreciate my hometown of Elba, AL. I am thankful that I grew up in the kind of town where you know everyone and everyone knows you. Parades, proms, football, band day, spirit rallies, bon fires and “riding around” were all big… simple pleasures that form a community and and memories that still bring a smile to my face. The muddy waters of the Pea River may have washed away the desks, books, lockers, trophies and such on that fateful March day in 1990 but it did not wash away the memories of this special place.

See these video links for more on the 1990 Elba flood:

News clips of the flood from regional and national stations (compiled by Jackie Collier)

We Remember the Flood of 1990

Elba Anthem

We Are The Elba Tigers

(This is a great commercial that Phillip Morris filmed in Elba showing their effort in the recovery)

The below article about Tiger Town Park and Elba High School was previously on and written by Sierra Lehnhoff:

Over the course of Living Democracy 2013, we have focused on special places. We’ve talked about places that are an asset to the community, written pieces on places where people gather and shared about special areas in communities scattered all over Alabama.

Places have a multitude of meanings to individuals, but some of those are considered more ‘sacred’ than others. By sacred it is meant that the place has an important, symbolic meaning to a large portion of those who inhabit or once inhabited the area near it.

These places can be anywhere from a government building or a store or even a simple gas station. It is not the place itself, but the meaning and the memories behind a location that makes it sacred. These symbols hold value to the citizens and boost the importance of a place. Often old historic buildings have been saved because of their shared value to the citizens of a community.

To citizens in Elba, the old high school is one such sacred place. Although a flood destroyed most of the school when the Pea River left its banks, the white and cream front of the school still stands tall and proud. The front of the building and the front steps, which the school’s alumni still visit during reunions, were saved. Alumni can gather in front of the three double doors on the steps below the large, black Elba High School letters at the top.

The doors of the past open up to the future here. By looking through one of the windows of the three double doors, visitors can see the Tiger Town Park with a recently built playground. The playground wall facing the school is adorned with red, green and blue painted handprints and signatures of Elba’s youth.

Laurie Chapman, a general coordinator on the project group for the Tiger Town Park construction, said, “It (the school) was slated to be demolished around the same time we were in the planning stages of the playground project.”

But then an idea was born. It was decided that saving an important part of the old Elba High School would symbolize hope in the face of tragedy created by floods.

Local citizens say that the old Elba High School holds a special place in the town’s heart. Mart Gray, pastor of Covenant Community Church, describes the school as “the central hub of community life for generations.”The front steps, he adds, were a popular teenage hangout in the past.

Today, those who attended the school can cherish their memories of high school days when they see the building’s rescued front entrance while they make new memories by watching their children play at Tiger Town Park.

The efforts to save the front section of Elba High School show how this symbol is important to the entire community. After the school was damaged, the community banded together and made something good happen.

Chapman and the committee behind the playground development were able to keep some of Elba’s history as well as bring a new asset to the area. These two things combined into one make for a sacred place. The citizens honored the past by preserving an important piece of the building that was central to the town’s history. They salvaged what they could to tell a story of a town that wasn’t going to give up. Now, citizens can look through the doors of the past and see Elba’s future.

On the subject of schools and their importance to the communities, we pulled this previously run post written by C-Team contributing editor Emily Hines from our Southern C archives. Click the below link. Think you will enjoy…


Whitney Long View More Blog Posts from this Author

Whitney Long is co-founder of The Southern C and The Southern C Summit. Mama x 4, wife x 1. Entrepreneur, thinker, doer, writer, researcher, believer. Enjoys working alongside creative entrepreneurs to build community while supporting established and upcoming brands. Hobbies include travel, reading, bike rides and clever craft cocktails.

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One response on “Community – A Piece of History

  1. Jay

    I too, grew up in Elba. I moved away after the 8th grade and never saw the old junior high and high school intact again. (1978) Looking at google street view now, (something I do quite often now that I am “older”) and reminiscing makes me very sad. I just wish I could go back and see the old sights and view the downtown area once again as it was when I was a kid….Oh well, c’est la vie. Thanks for sharing your memories….

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