This blog recently told the story of Morgan-Leary, a high school that only lasted three months under its name. The school previously had been known as Calhoun and in 1957 and after three months as Morgan-Leary, changed its name to Morgan (which had been the school’s name until the 1953-54 school year).
An even shorter-lived school name has popped up: Pearl Stephens High.
Its brief existence is probably not a record, either, considering some of the upheaval in Georgia’s educational system.
More than one school in the state has bore the name of Pearl Stephens High School. The one for this story existed in Macon in 1924.
Macon had a complicated history of high schools in the 1910s-20s.
Gresham was the city’s main white high school until 1909, when a new school opened at Forsyth and Orange streets. This new high school would only share honors as being the main high school, though, as education was split into boys and girls high schools.
The new boys high school either did not have a name or retained the name of Gresham (split across two sites) until September 1910, when it took the name of Lanier, named for poet Sidney Lanier.
Almost immediately, both schools were overcrowded. In November 1912, the board of education decided to expand the Lanier site for boys and girls high schools and turn Gresham into a grammar school.
While the new Lanier was under construction, the board temporarily relieved some of the overcrowding at the site by creating double sessions at the Gresham girls high school and briefly returning it to a coeducational status.
The expanded Lanier of 1913 was coed and remained that way until changes in 1924 when the boys of Lanier were moved to a new building.
The new boys site was immediately christened Lanier. But what to do with the girls?
The Bibb Board of Education thought it had a perfect solution, which it announced at a September 11 meeting.
“Bibb County’s new high school for boys was yesterday named Lanier High School and the institution which has borne that name and is now to be used exclusively for girls was named Pearl Stephens High School, at the September meeting of the Board of Education held yesterday at the courthouse.”
The late Miss Stephens was a well known educator in the city schools for more than 35 years.
Keeping the boys school at Lanier was a source of pride for the boys and it was agreed to retain the name. Protests to the Stephens name were dismissed.
At that time, the board did not seem to recognize how important the Lanier name was for the girls as well, despite letters before the change.
When rumors of the new name were circulating in late August, a Lanier alumnus named Helen Shaw Harrold wrote the Macon Telegraph a letter about why she wanted the old name kept:
“Most of the letters have favored the idea of taking the name ‘Lanier’ from the building to which it rightly belongs, or giving it to the boys and of renaming the real ‘Lanier,’ ‘Pearl Stephens High School.’ Against this idea I do earnestly protest as do a great many, who, however, have not expressed themselves. I have nothing against the memory of Miss Pearl — she was fine — but it just seems foolish to me that the name should be taken from the school to which it belongs. As a matter of fact, when Miss Pearl taught at the high school she taught intermediate boys.”
It wasn’t just Stephens’ name seemingly being only significant to male students that Harrold protested, it was the lack of recognition given to the accomplishments of female students.
“The main contention of those would would take the name from us and give it to the boys is that the boys have won so many honors on the drill and athletic field while the girls have done nothing? Why haven’t they? Because the girls have never been allowed to have school teams in any sport at all. They have never been allowed to play on any basketball court except in the inadequate, unequipped, dark gymnasium in the basement of the school. There is good material among the girls which put together and with the proper instruction and coaching would make fine teams. Other high schools in the State, some of which are larger while others are smaller, have supported teams for boys and girls alike. Why can’t we?
“So much for athletics. A school cannot live off of that alone. In the field of scholarship, which have been the more faithful to their books, the girls or the boys? The girls, every time. Each month when the honor roll was published, the girls outnumbered the boys by a large majority.”
(White girls in Bibb County schools would not be allowed to play competitive high school basketball until 1970.)
Harrold suggested naming the new school Lanier High for Girls.
After the name change, even more letters of protest went to the Telegraph. One described the movement going on at the school.
“For a while there were indignant discussions and marked resentment at the idea of another name,” said Margaret Long on September 24. “Now some of the girls wear black ribbons ‘in loving memory of the deceased Lanier High School.’ Others, maybe a little defiantly, are wearing orange and green ribbons on their shoulders.”
Long said the movement was not about Pearl Stephens, but about their love of Lanier.
“There is probably not a girl at ‘Pearl Stephens School’ who does not admire and respect this wonderful woman and honor her memory. But there are others who have taught at long as Miss Stephens and done as much good. For instance, Miss Clara Smith taught for forty-four years and is one of the most wonderfully beloved women in Macon. Miss Clara was not only loved devotedly by everyone who was fortunate enough to have her as a teacher but everyone of her acquaintance.
“Of course, Lanier couldn’t be named for more than one teacher and as there are more than one who are worthy of the honor, why not please the girls to whom it would mean so much to have for the name of their school, ‘Lanier Girls’ High’?”
The protests finally struck with the board of education, especially a petition with 1,000 signatures. On October 9, the girls school was granted its old Lanier name, but the decision was not unanimous.
J. Ellsworth Hall was the most vocal of the opponents.
““This whole thing has been assiduously worked up,” Hall said. “These girls do not know what they want. I can take a petition before them tomorrow morning and get every one of them to sign it.”
T.D. Tinsley asked that the board not acknowledge the petition at all. He lost that vote, 7-5.
Macon mayor Luther Williams urged that Stephens be honored with another school. Stephens’ family had previously blessed the naming of the high school in her honor.
Despite opposition, Pearl Stephens was again Lanier.
The name stayed six more years, when a new girls high was built.
In 1930, when the building was under construction, the school was given the name A.L. Miller.
There were again letters of protest against a name change, but this time the board stuck with its decision. Miller High it was when it opened in 1931 and Miller High it remained until Macon’s massive integration and coeducational high school shuffle of 1970.
The Bibb County Board of Education did find a way to honor Stephens; an elementary school was named in her honor. The Facebook group, We Attended Pearl Stephens Elementary in Macon, GA, pegs the school’s dates as 1929-90. Pearl Stephens Elementary was turned into senior housing, Pearl Stephens Village, in 2008.
(Note: The Pearl Stephens school in Warner Robins, which was an African-American high school through the 1969-70 school year, was named for a different Pearl Stephens.)
Sources: Macon Telegraph – Sept. 27, 1910, June 6, 1912, Nov. 21, 1912, May 9, 1913, Aug. 28, 1924, Sept. 12, 1924, Oct. 10, 1924, Dec. 12, 1930, Jan. 4, 2017; National Register of Historical Places Registration Form for A.L. Miller buildings