Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC
Photo: Vanessa McCray
Photo: Vanessa McCray

No park at historic Washington High; some alumni objected

Officials said an historic Atlanta high school has been removed as a potential site for a public park after alumni voiced concerns about how the proposed project would alter the school’s grounds.

Booker T. Washington High School opened in 1924 as the first public high school for African-American students in Georgia. About 30 years ago, the school was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

This spring, Washington High was put on a list of 11 Atlanta schools that could participate in a new project to open up schoolyards for after-hours use as public parks. Parks groups are raising money to design the selected sites so that they can serve double duty and pay for park amenities, such as benches, picnic tables and shade trees.

But some alumni of the high school, located on Whitehouse Drive not far from Morehouse and Spelman colleges, aren’t interested.

“We don’t want anything to jeopardize our legacy and our history,” said Valerie Williams, president of the Atlanta Alumni Association of Booker T. Washington High School.

The application nominating the school for historic status included the building, parking lots and playing fields.

Williams and a handful of other Washington graduates asked the Atlanta school board on Monday to put it in writing that their alma mater wouldn’t be considered for the project.

Atlanta Public Schools spokesman Ian Smith said the superintendent previously told the group that Washington has been removed from the list of possible park sites.

In a Tuesday letter sent to the high school’s supporters, Washington principal Angela Coaxum-Young said she decided not to pursue the project after hearing “overwhelming opposition.” 

“To truly consider the impact of such a project on our school operation, security and the overall historic nature of Booker T. Washington High School, I solicited the input from all stakeholders through a survey. There was a clear trend in the feedback that indicated a lack of support for the schoolyards project,” she wrote.

Coaxum-Young became principal in July. The school’s previous leader had indicated interest in the project, said George Dusenbury, the Georgia state director for The Trust for Public Land.

The trust is one of several groups working on the Atlanta Community Schoolyards program. Last month, they announced the initial two Atlanta schools chosen to launch the program. Dobbs and Kimberly elementary schools were among the 11 schools on the list of contenders, a list that included Washington High School and 10 elementary schools.

Dusenbury said the program organizers have heard the concerns about including Washington and are not pursuing it as a potential site.

“We’re completely respectful of the community,” he said.

Williams said that alumni were told that an anonymous donor had promised $100,000 to help pay for the park project at Washington. She said there are other public parks nearby, and the alumni group is against anything that would be a “desecration of our school.”

“There’s a lot of things that can be bought for $100,000, but 45 Whitehouse Drive will not be one of them,” she told board members.

Park advocates want to create public parks at a total of 10 schools during a three-year pilot program. Later this year, the program organizers will send out another invitation to schools to apply for consideration, Dusenbury said.

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