The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Local News

May 16, 2012

Ft. Henderson/Trinity site deemed ‘in peril’

A list released by state historic groups has listed the Fort Henderson and Trinity School site in Athens as “a place in peril,” but that may not be a bad thing.

The Alabama Historic Commission and the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation release the list each year as part of National Historic Preservation Month. Frank White, executive director of the AHC, said the “Places in Peril” list is a valuable tool for directing public attention to historic sites in Alabama threatened by neglect or demolition.

Richard Martin, member of the nonprofit Athens-Limestone Community Association, hopes the seemingly unflattering designation helps people understand work is being done to restore the site. He said it may also help raise funds needed to turn the site into a museum and tourist destination, located at 800 Brownsferry Street.

Martin said plans are in place to host events at the site, including a “swap and shop” event in June at which vendors can rent booth space. In July, the ALCA plans to hold an event at Athens State University to inform African-American ministers in the community about the work being performed at the site. A large-scale class reunion will be held at the school in September.

“There’s a lot going on, and we’re trying to accumulate money so we can get the grants to rebuild it,” Martin said.

He said the money is coming in, slowly but surely. The Athens-Limestone Community Association recently gave $1,000 toward the project, and Martin said two other families have given $1,000 each.

The ALCA plans to apply for more grants, but most of them require a 20 percent match. As of mid-April the group had raised about $100,000 toward its $366,000 goal.

The project has also received support from the city of Athens and Limestone County, including at least $50,000 worth of in-kind labor, Martin said. Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks acknowledged the city’s commitment to the project, but added more help may be on the way.

“We’d like to set up a historic preservation fund, or at least take one preservation issue at the time,” he said. “I’m certainly in favor of it, and I hope the majority of the council would be, too.”

From the Civil War until the Civil Rights era, the old Fort Henderson site and Trinity School — located at 800 Brownsferry Street — played an important role in the history of Athens and North Alabama, the preservation groups said. Constructed in 1863, Fort Henderson was garrisoned by regiments of the Union Army’s United States Colored Troops (USCT).  

After the war, the American Missionary Association built Trinity School near the fort site to educate children of former slaves.  It became the first accredited high school for African-Americans in the state and for many years served as the only high school for blacks in Limestone County.  

The original buildings no longer stand, but a 1929 auditorium and a section of the 1959 school are still standing. Both buildings are in need of repair, however.  Other structures and historic sites also survive on the campus including a portion of the earthworks that once surrounded the original fort.

The majority of the troops at Fort Henderson soldiers were residents of Limestone, Lawrence and Morgan counties.  Today, only a section of the original trench is still visible.

Founded by Mary Wells and the American Missionary Association, Trinity School remained a private institution until1943 when it was reopened as a public school.  It closed after the desegregation mandate of 1970.

Marks said the city needs to be more proactive in saving historic sites, whether it’s the Fort Henderson and Trinity project or the Beaty-Mason Home at Athens State University. He said preserving the city’s history would help instill a greater sense of pride in the community.

“We can never be any better if we don’t look at where we came from,” he said.

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