J.F. Drake Middle School is being transformed into a facility that will meet the needs of its students for decades to come.

The school's major overhaul will include a two-story classroom building set to face North Donahue Drive that will open in 2021.

Yet through its name, location, and archives the school's history as the nexus of Auburn's African-American community in the 1950s and '60s will live on through the new facility.

The school opened in 1958 as J. F. Drake High School and brought together black students from Auburn, surrounding cities like Loachapoka and Waverly, and the county. Previously, many of those students attended Lee County Training School, which closed in 1957.

"That's, I think, when community took place," said Davis Richardson, a Drake High alum from the class of 1969.

Richardson, who lives near Birmingham, recently came back to walk the halls of his old school when he helped coordinate his class's 50th reunion, part of which was held at Drake Middle School earlier this year.

In early July, Richardson returned again to talk about the school's legacy and its role in shaping him as a teenager growing up in the segregated South. As he talked, he sat at a table in the school's cafeteria and recalled the day he stopped by Drake Middle during lunchtime to meet with Principal Sarah Armstrong about using the facility for his class reunion.

"I didn't realize I was in Alabama," he said of peering into the cafeteria during the students' lunch hour. "I was just accustomed to walking in here and seeing all black faces — but the diversity of the kids now. What was so unique about it is they were so noisy. Everybody was just interfacing; it was just beautiful to stand back and see that."

 

'Nucleus of a community'

 

For the black community in 1960s-Auburn, Drake High School was everything, Richardson said.

It was a school, a recreation center, a year-round social gathering space, an athletic facility and a place where parents had full trust in teachers to not only educate their children academically, but to also help them understand the world as it was at the time and shape them into young men and women aiming for success.

"Drake speaks to the fact that a school can form the nucleus of a community," he said. "Most of our parents didn't graduate from high school, so the ultimate goal for everyone was for their kid to graduate from Drake High School. ... Graduation from Drake is still everything to me, whereas college — to be honest with you, I didn't even go back for the ceremony."

The curriculum of Drake High reflected the idea that the school was more than a place, that it "was a people," Richardson said.

"At the time, Drake was perhaps the only institution in the state of Alabama where black people could exercise freedom and truth, because the schools were segregated. We were free to be black people; we were free to be Negroes, and the curriculum was developed to accompany that," he said. "So, when you walked out of Drake, you not only walked out prepared for secondary education or a vocation, but you also walked out with an understanding of how to function in ... society as a black person. It was the standard state curriculum, but our instructors informally taught us black history."

The community in northwest Auburn had its own culture set apart from the rest of the city, Richardson said. It had its own arts, food and way of life, and Drake was the hub of it all, despite having fewer resources than the all-white Auburn High (which was housed in the East Samford School building at the time).

Richardson remembers the chemistry lab being empty ("no microscopes, no test tubes, no frogs to dissect") and the football team receiving second-hand sweaty, worn-down uniforms from Auburn High.

"But we were taught how to still be successful despite not having those things. We spent all our time trying to overcome those types of things as opposed to complaining, and that was what was so great," he said.

During 1965, his freshman year, desegregation of schools began, though Auburn City Schools did not fully integrate until the 1970-71 school year. Richardson chose to stay at Drake High through graduation — it was a two-minute walk from his house and his life revolved around it. Only a handful of his classmates chose to attend Auburn High that first year.

"Drake was life for us," Richardson said. "Everything rotated around Drake."

 

Past informs the future

 

Now, some 50 years later, renovations to Drake Middle School will give the campus much-needed improvements, and administration is working on how to incorporate the school's history into its upgrade.

Construction will include a redesigned entry drive, a two-story classroom building that will face North Donahue Drive, a renovated media center and a dining, music and art building as well as a softball field and play field.

The project has a price tag of $19.8 million and will be completed in phases. The school is slated to be open in August 2021.

In the current facility, the Community Room acts as an archives room, storing yearbooks, photos and memorabilia from Drake High. Those items will be incorporated into the new facility in a way that highlights the past and educates students, said ACS Public Relations Specialist Daniel Chesser.

"Talking to (Principal) Sarah (Armstrong), there's been a lot of effort put into preserving those yearbooks, those photos, all those little trinkets, memorabilia and pieces of history," he said. "When this campus takes new form, that stuff is not going to go away. It's going to find a place on that campus."

In what way the items will be used is still unclear, but Chesser said the school system has two years to work on ideas.

"It could take different forms along the way," he said, adding that members of northwest Auburn will have an opportunity to give their "unofficial seal of approval."

That the school's name, a nod to Auburn native and former president of Alabama A&M University Dr. Joseph Fanning Drake, and location will remain the same is a significance that should not be overlooked, Richardson said.

"For my generation, it means everything that the school is staying in the community, that the name is staying," he said. "The past is as ever-present as the present, but it's the consolidation of those two that informs the future."

Combined with its history in the black community, Chesser said Drake is a special place to many students because it is within the school's walls that entire grades meet for the first time. Before sixth grade, students are separated by zones, attending elementary schools in their neighborhoods. At Drake, the students are united with the classmates with whom they will likely graduate.

"It's the first time you have four different communities come together in one place," Chesser said. "You talk to the kid ... who's about to graduate, and they're still hanging on to that identity that they developed here at Drake because this is the first time you get that little bit of freedom; you're changing classes. While it's not in line necessarily with the history of this area of town, it's still carrying on that legacy that Drake is a special place."

While the history of Drake High will live on through its archives as well as the name and location, it will also live on through its alumni interacting with current students.

In the past two years, Drake Middle School has been the meeting place for two Drake High class reunions — 1968 and 1969 — with the former coming during school hours to interact with the kids. Richardson, along with other Drake High graduates, has also been interviewed by current students about his time at the school.

"I could see as we were answering their questions how they were impacted by it, so they'll walk away from here with a greater history and understanding of their school and the impact the school has had not only on the students, but also on the community as a whole," he said. "They'll have a story to tell.

"I think when it's all said and done, this school will continue to be of tremendous benefit."

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