ATHENS — As Carolyn Williams thought back over the time she spent as a student at Trinity School, the names of the teachers who helped shape her life came to mind.
“Most of the teachers that taught us there were Trinity graduates, too,” said the 1969 graduate. “We had dedicated teachers and people around who really believed in us. They encouraged us and believed our lives were going to be better than our parents’.”
Trinity School was Limestone County’s only black high school during the days of segregation. It closed in 1970. But the Athens-Limestone Community Association has been raising money since 2007 to renovate the school and turn it into a community center.
Masheldia Green, who has ties to the school, said one of the primary goals of the renovation is to preserve the history of the school and its people — a history that’s similar to that of other black schools established across the South by philanthropic and religious groups following the Civil War.
With the help of a $397,000 Community Development Block grant; $25,000 each from the state, Athens and Limestone County; donations from the community and former students; and appropriations from state representatives and senators, a portion of the school has been renovated and renamed the Pincham-Lincoln Center.
David Malone, a 1966 Trinity graduate and Athens-Limestone Community Association board member, said Trinity teachers wanted to make sure each student succeeded. If a student failed a test Wednesday, their parents would know about it by that weekend, he said.
“I’ll never forget Ms. Sammie Mason,” he said. “Every time a Trinity student made it in the newspaper or magazine, she would bring it to school for us to see. She would tell us that if they could do it, then we could do it, too.”
On the campus is a monument to Mary Emma Perkins, a white teacher who lived in the Trinity community from 1889 until her death in 1943. She requested she be cremated and her ashes spread on the grounds of the school. The monument includes a stone pond the Athens-Limestone Community Association hopes to restore.
Williams said students came from as far as the Triana area in Madison County to attend the seventh- through 12th-grade school, which is located at 606 Trinity Circle in Athens. Williams said the community was taken by surprise when the school closed in 1970.
“They had no knowledge that the school was going to close,” she said. “It was a travesty.”
When schools were integrated, black schools closed and students were scattered among the formerly white schools of Athens and Limestone County.
“There was a lot of disappointment from the older kids because they thought they were going to get to graduate from Trinity like a lot of their older siblings did,” Williams said.
The school slowly deteriorated as it sat untouched for 45 years. Williams said the first big donation the renovation project received was $10,000 from the late Judge Robert Eugene Pincham.
The Pincham-Lincoln Center bears the name of two Trinity students who graduated in the early 1940s. Pincham became a civil rights attorney, circuit court judge and justice of the Illinois Appellate Court. Charles Eric Lincoln was an author, scholar and theologian who wrote 22 books, taught or lectured at prominent universities in the U.S. and abroad, and retired from the faculty of Duke University.
Pincham died in 2008 and Lincoln in 2000. Another prominent graduate was Patti Malone, who joined the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1877. The a cappella group originated at Fisk University and went on to tour the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
The part of the school that was renovated once housed the library, principal’s office and a classroom. It has been transformed into a 3,600-square-foot space with a meeting room, office area, restrooms and kitchen. The space primarily will be used for educational programs, such as after-school mentoring and tutoring. The meeting room will be available to rent for public and private events.
The Athens Rotary Club donated $15,000 for the landscaping around the center. On at recent Saturday, volunteers gathered to plant 26 trees on the campus.
Phase 2 of the project includes turning the school’s old band room into a museum filled with artifacts from the school and the Trinity-Fort Henderson Complex. Williams said the Athens-Limestone Community Association isn’t sure how much the second phase of the project will cost.
Malone said about 80 percent of the school had to be demolished because it would have been too expensive — about $2 million — to renovate it all.
Trinity School was established by the American Missionary Association in May 1865, just weeks after the end of the Civil War. Mary Fletcher Wells, a white teacher from Ann Arbor, Michigan, assembled her first classes in a white Baptist church, where she initially taught under military guard. The building that stands today was built in 1959.
The school is located in the Trinity-Fort Henderson Complex, built in 1863 by slaves-turned-soldiers and Union forces occupying Athens.
The fort, situated on Coleman Hill, was five-sided with buildings and underground bomb shelters. A portion of the embankment still is visible on the east side of the campus.
“I always tell people that on these grounds the black man was in slavery, fought for his freedom and then was educated,” Malone said.
Larry Green, Masheldia Green’s husband and a 1966 graduate, said students often found cannon balls and Native American arrowheads on campus.
“Those are the kinds of things I think about now that I know the historical significance of it,” Larry Green said. “We were amazed because we had never seen those things before, but I don’t think we realized how important it was.”
The grand opening of the Pincham-Lincoln Center is at 10 a.m. Dec. 17.