Phillips High School

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Phillips High School
Phillips High School sm.jpg
Active 19232002
School type Public
District Birmingham City Schools
Grades 9-12
Colors crimson & white
Mascot Crimsons / Red Raiders / Lions
Location 2316 7th Avenue North, (map)

John Herbert Phillips High School is a former Birmingham City Schools flagship high school located on the full city block between 7th and 8th Avenue North and 23rd and 24th Streets in the Central City neighborhood.

The high school was dedicated on Memorial Day, May 30, 1923, replacing the former Central High School which was destroyed by fire in 1918. It became a landmark in the history of school integration when Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was viciously beaten when he tried to enroll a group of African-American students, one of whom was his daughter, in 1957. The school is named for Birmingham's first superintendent of schools, Dr John Herbert Phillips, who served from 1883 until his death in 1921. The original enrollment was 2,453 students, which swelled to over 3,000 the second year. The high school served all of central Birmingham, with Ensley High School and Woodlawn High School taking students from the west and east sections of the city respectively. Birmingham's black students attended Industrial High School. In 2001 Carver High School supplanted Phillips as Birmingham's main high school, with Phillips being converted to use as a professional development center and as a temporary location for elementary schools to hold classes while their own buildings were renovated. The school is a centerpiece of the Park Place Apartments, a redevelopment of the former Metropolitan Gardens public housing for mixed-income residents.


The three-story Jacobethan Revival brick building was designed for a capacity of 2,400 students by the firm of Breeding & Whilldin, with advice from St Louis school planning expert William B. Ittner. The layout is an example of the "comprehensive" large high school promoted during the educational reforms of the Progressive era. Construction firms involved included Inglenook Construction Company, The Foundation Company of New York, and O. D. Thomas and Son of Memphis. The building was completed for $500,000.

A physical plant and warehouse was built across 8th Avenue prior to construction of the main school. The steam plant for the school incorporated five 125hp coal-fuled boilers which provided heat to the school. A 5 by 6 foot tunnel connects the them to the basement of the main building. Other spaces in the basement include the dining hall, armory, music room, and manual and vocational shops.

The central part of the main building, up a short flight of marble stairs from the main entry, is occupied by a 2,040 seat auditorium decorated with ornate plasterwork, and lit from both sides by large windows and from above by a massive skylight (now covered). Opening to the rear of the stage is the primary gymnasium. A second (girls') gymnasium is also on the first floor along with classrooms, offices, and science laboratories.

Interior of the renovated library. Photograph by Terry McCombs

On the second floor is the school library, paneled in Flemish oak and provided with an ornate marble fireplace, as well as 20 classrooms and several two study rooms. The third floor contained more chemistry labs along with 7 classrooms. A model apartment, called "the household suite" served as a laboratory for the home economics department and was adjoined by a large teaching kitchen. Another educational feature was a banking room, complete with teller window, for students learning about finance.

Phillips' hallways are adorned with three painted murals depicting the discovery of fire, the dawn of civilization and the development of the alphabet. These relate to a larger, crescent-shaped mural above the entrance door showing the splendors of the industrial age. Outside the entry doors is another painting, showing a male figure wielding the "golden rule" against figures representing greed and violence.

In 1953 a playing field was constructed to the east of the school, followed in 1961 by a new $290,000 gymnasium building, designed in a modern style by Evan M. Terry across 24th Street.

In 1966-67 $2 million in renovations to the school were supervised by Warren Knight & Davis architects. The changes included replacing wood floors with tile, installing new ceilings and furnishings, adding a passenger elevator, and equipping several new vocational classrooms. Phillips' new technical department offered training courses in business accounting, industrial electronics, refrigeration and air conditioning, drafting, commercial art, television, and automatic data processing. Programs in the same fields were also made available to adults as night classes.


After Central High School burned in 1918 students attended classes at the Paul Hayne School and the nearby Medial College on Southside until the new Phillips High School could be completed. The central part of the new building was dedicated on May 30, 1923 and opened for classes the next fall. A second unit was completed in December 1925. The school served grades 10-12 until 1930 when 9th graders from the Paul Hayne School were admitted.

Of 24 schools in the South that graduated 500 or more students from 1926 to 1930, Phillips was ranked highest for the success of its graduates as college freshmen.

During the 1930s the school's auditorium served as the home of the Birmingham Civic Symphonic Orchestra, and also accommodated large recitals that exceeded the capacity of the Birmingham Conservatory of Music, then located directly across 7th Avenue.

Alma Mater

Phillips' "Alma Mater" was composed by Alfred Mayer and published in 1948.

Oh hail to thee our Alma Mater.
We sing our praise of thee.
We cherish your traditions.
We love your stately halls.
The memory of the hours we spent there
Will live within our souls.
Our symbol of devotion
The Crimson and the white.


On September 9, 1957, three years after the U. S. Supreme Court had ruled segregated schools unconstitutional, Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights president Fred Shuttlesworth accompanied a group of four black children and their parents to Phillips High School in an attempt to enroll them as the school's first black students. The group was met by a mob of Klansmen armed with chains, clubs and brass knuckles. Shuttlesworth's wife, Ruby, was stabbed in the hip and his daughter, Ruby Frederika, suffered a broken ankle in the melee. Badly beaten, Shuttlesworth himself spoke that same night to urge continued non-violence on the part of black protesters, even in the face of klan and police brutality.

The suspects charged in the beating saw their charges dropped, while the lawsuit against the city filed by Shuttlesworth failed all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld Birmingham's rule giving discretion over pupil placement directly to school superintendents.

In September 1963, a plan drawn up in federal court initiated desegregation in Birmingham's schools. Graymont Elementary School was the first white school to have a black student in attendance, on September 4. A bomb that exploded that night at the home of Civil Rights activist Arthur Shores provoked the school system to close temporarily. When schools reopened on September 9, Alabama state troopers acted under orders from Governor George Wallace to prevent the black children from entering the schools. President Kennedy responded by sending the National Guard to escort transfers into West End High School and Ramsay High School on September 10. Five days later, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four young girls.

Phillips High School admitted its first African American students, Lillie Mae Jones, Minnie Lee Moore and Patricia Patton, on September 3, 1964. Largely due to white flight, the racial composition of the school changed drastically in just a few years. The number of students dropped from 3,000 to 1,200 by the middle of the decade, and the major renovations to the building and curriculum undertaken in 1966-1967 were aimed at boosting enrollment. By 1971 more than 80 percent of the student body was African American, many of which resented being bused across town.

On February 3, 1971 the auditorium and principal's office were briefly taken over by students protesting against having few opportunities for social interaction at school and against the presence of excessive hall marshals. According to an article in the inaugural issue of Fool, a committee of students was joined by two sympathetic faculty members in occupying the office under the banner of the "Concerned Students for Change". A reporter from one of the newspapers called and was told by a student answering the phone that "We've tied up all the officials, taken over the office, the revolution has begun, and your honky newspaper is going next." In actuality, principal Ward Proctor had voluntarily vacated the office during the protest. His administration accepted the CSC's list of demands, including weekly assemblies programmed by students, a school wide observance of National Black History Week, and a "rap room" alternative for study hall periods. The demand to eliminate hall marshals was not accepted.

Current status

After the construction of a new Carver High School in 2002, Phillips was converted into a professional development center and used on a temporary basis by other city schools being renovated. In 2005 the Birmingham Board of Education announced a $10.7 million plan to renovate the school as a flagship K-8 school for the Birmingham system, with a curriculum for student enrichment based on the work of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

The proposal called for a number of physical changes to the campus, mainly to enhance safety for bus riders and accessibility for disabled persons, which some felt would damage the historical integrity of the building and would potentially affect its eligibility for National Historic Landmark status. The National Park Service has indicated that such a listing is unlikely in any event.

The Alabama Historical Commission and the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation placed the school on its 2006 "Places in Peril" list, and Shuttlesworth travelled from his home in Cincinnati to speak out against changes that would imperil landmark status. Nevertheless, in September 2006 the Birmingham Design Review Committee approved the landscaping plan submitted by Birmingham City Schools.

After $9 million in renovations, the school re-opened as a K-8 school in the Fall of 2007, occupying the lower floors of the building. The exterior and the auditorium were left unrestored pending additional funding. The school's painted murals were cleaned and preserved in 2009.

In addition to serving neighborhood students, the school serves as a magnet for applicants from across the city and a laboratory for advanced teaching methods. The middle-school grades are distinguished as the John Herbert Phillips Academy, partnering with the YMCA, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Birmingham Public Library to expand educational opportunities. Math and Science programs are assisted by faculty from the Tuskegee University School of Architecture and successful practices pioneered at Phillips are taught to other teachers through the system's professional development program.

Notable alumni



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