Sandra Taylor enters a Fulton County Schools maintenance building and smiles. Then her eyes begin to fill with tears.
She pauses inside a large room filled with stacks of lumber, machinery, dust.
But Taylor sees something else: remnants of a cafeteria and a small stage, a gathering place in a school where she played flute, developed an affinity for poetry and formed lifelong bonds with teachers and classmates.
Taylor, now 67, attended school at this building on Kimball Bridge Road in Alpharetta when it was the Bailey-Johnson School, a segregation-era school for African-American students.
She graduated 50 years ago in 1967 with the school’s last senior class. On Saturday, Taylor and dozens of classmates will gather for a reunion at what was once the only high school in North Fulton that would enroll them.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Taylor and Charles Grogan, who graduated from the Bailey-Johnson school in 1965 and who is known as a local historian, joined AJC reporters and videographers for an informal tour inside a building steeped in memories.
“What I really appreciate about Bailey-Johnson is that the teachers were interested in the students — in their well-being, in their learning and them being good human beings. They nurtured us like second parents. There was an environment where you comfortable and felt a bond,” said Taylor, who lives in the Decatur area.
Bailey-Johnson was as much a safe haven as it was a school for black children during the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1966, Taylor had the option to attend her final year of high school at Roswell High School during the beginning of integration.
“I didn’t want to go to a school where I didn’t know if I would be welcomed or not,” she said. “Bailey-Johnson was my school, my teachers, my pride, my bond, my family.”
But some of her classmates made the switch. And in the end, a small school with fewer than 15 kids in the graduating class shrunk even more. There were only eight kids in Taylor’s graduating class, so small they decided not to produce a yearbook.
Bailey-Johnson School began in 1950 as the Alpharetta Colored School. Built on a hilltop on Kimball Bridge Road, it consolidated three smaller schools that served African-American students in North Fulton – in Roswell, Alpharetta and Sheltonville (near today’s Johns Creek).
Before 1950, African-American students in North Fulton didn’t have the option of continuing their education after 7th grade. Students wanting a high school education had to commute to one of two schools in Atlanta.
Alpharetta Colored School promised to change that. The new school offered classes from first through 12th grade. The school was small but modern, and was equipped with a cafeteria/auditorium, a library and seven classrooms. A 1950 report in the North Fulton Herald reported that the school’s faculty all had college degrees and that the principal was working on her masters.
In 1953, a year before the school graduated its first students, parents successfully petitioned to change the name of the school to Bailey-Johnson. George “Hard” Bailey was the name of the Alpharetta resident who donated the land for the school and Warren Johnson, of Roswell, was a proponent of African-American education.
Bailey-Johnson saw several expansions in its first years: four new classrooms in 1953, a gym in 1958. Although the student body was small, the school fielded teams in basketball and track and field. Its boys basketball squad won the Division B State Championship in 1965.
For the 1966-67 school year, high school-aged students at Bailey-Johnson were allowed to transfer to the newly integrated Roswell High School, although most chose to stay at Bailey-Johnson. Even so, it would be the school’s last year.
Parents and faculty fought the decision to close Bailey-Johnson — a result of federal mandates to integrate schools — arguing that its amenities were as good or better than some of the white schools’ in the area. In that final 1966-67 school year, Bailey-Johnson had 166 elementary and high school students and 13 faculty.
After her school closed, Evelyn B. Anderson had no choice but to attend Roswell High School.
Anderson, now 63, entered Roswell High as an eighth-grader. While she has warm memories from her years at Bailey-Johnson, she has more mixed recollections from Roswell High School.
“It wasn’t necessarily bad,” said Anderson, who lives in Roswell and is Taylor’s younger sister. “It was different.”
Anderson recalls most of her teachers at Roswell High as being neither overtly hostile nor particularly warm. Two exceptions stand out. A (white) health and PE teacher failed every black student in the class. And coach Ray Manus (also white), who was Anderson’s history teacher and also her basketball coach. She recalls him as being especially kind and encouraging.
She remembers white neighborhood kids who pretended not to know her when they saw her at school but also remembers being befriended by white classmates who invited her to join them on a trip to Macon.
As Sandra Taylor meandered through her former school in recent weeks, and made her way into a room with rows of coat racks, she spotted a green chalkboard and felt a rush of emotions.
“Growing up, the teachers would instill in you that you are as good as anybody else,” she said. “If you persevere and give it your all, you can conquer anything you want to. So for me it was reinforcing confidence in yourself during such a difficult segregated time. Your parents would tell you, but you got that reinforced in school.”
She credits Bailey-Johnson for helping nurture her during her formative years, for helping her shed shyness. Riding the school bus when she was 9, she met the boy who would be her future husband. (They will celebrate their 48th wedding anniversary in October).
Taylor remembers that Bailey-Johnson insulated her from a world that was much less accepting. She remembers, for example, seeing two water fountains at a Kessler’s Department store in downtown Atlanta — one that said “White Only,” and one that said, “Colored Only.” She remembers not being able to place her foot into a shoe when trying it on a shoe store — and instead having to rest her foot next to the shoe to check for size.
And she remembers being chased by a group of white boys on bicycles, once having to scale a wall, scraping her arm to escape them. (Although once on an overcast day, she had an umbrella, and when those boys came after her, she hit them with her umbrella and they never bothered her again).
She remembers having to sit on the back of the bus and being careful not to touch a white person. If she did, they would say “get away from me,” or say a racial slur.
Five decades later, Taylor and other students will gather to remember a special school that helped them cope and even thrive during harsh times.
Taylor has written poems about Bailey-Johnson over the years. Here’s a fragment from one she wrote in 2011: