12-10-2016  8:46 am      •     

ATHENS, Ala. (AP) _ There are six acres in Athens waiting for cultivation, not for a crop of cotton or soybeans, but for memories.
In this soil drained the blood of slaves fighting for their freedom.
In this soil one of history's greatest military strategists shot cannonballs.
Here, too, is where the feet of freed slaves eagerly ran to school to learn to read and write.
Their descendants walked this soil to vote for change.
And it is here, for the city, school segregation ceased.
The site on Brownsferry Street in Southwest Athens is known by three names: Coleman Hill, Fort Henderson and Trinity High School.
A group of citizens is trying to preserve the area as a historic site.
Judge Daniel Coleman built his home here in 1826 and operated a cotton plantation.
During the Civil War, Union troops occupied the site because it overlooked the Tennessee and Alabama Central Railroad that ran through Athens. Troops piled dirt 16 feet high in a star shape and turned the site into Fort Henderson and protected Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's supply line.
In September 1864, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a man feared among the Union because he could strike fast and slip away, decided to take the fort. He faced about 900 Union soldiers, mostly ex-slaves, from the area.
Forrest planted rumors among citizens in Athens that he had 10,000 men. He had about 4,500. The night before the Battle of Athens, he made his men march in all directions so the enemy would think it was greatly outnumbered. The next day, Forrest bombarded the fort with cannon.
The Union surrendered, and Forrest captured 500 horses and 973 men. He sent the ex-slaves to South Alabama to work on the defenses against the Union fleet blockade. They reportedly suffered whippings and had only cornmeal and mule meat to eat.
The white soldiers went to Vicksburg, Miss., and boarded the steamboat Sultana on April 26, 1865, for a prisoner exchange. Two days later, near Memphis, boilers exploded and the ship sank, killing more than 1,800 men.
When the war ended in 1865, the American Missionary Association founded Trinity School to educate freed slaves. The first school was in downtown Athens at Market and Clinton streets.
The Klan burned it, and the association rebuilt the school twice more because of fires. Its final location was atop Fort Henderson. The current structure dates to 1913 and 1959, when a hall and auditorium were added.
The school was the city's only all-black high school until 1970, when it closed because of desegregation.
Since its closure, the school has fallen into disrepair, and only 5 percent of Fort Henderson remains. The fort is a cluster of weeds, saplings and briars growing around a concrete foot bridge built in the 1930s.
Members of the Athens-Limestone Community Association want to save the fort and school.
On Feb. 20, three members, David Malone, Edward Gilbert and Jimmy Gill, toured the site. A groundhog peered at them from shrubs surrounding the dilapidated school. Oak leaves covered the floor tiles, and remnants of the roof hung on beams like wisteria.
Spider webs clung to the corners and discarded high heel shoes lay on top of books titled "This is How Katie Makes Steamed Okra.''
"Slaves fought here for their freedom, and then they were educated here on the same property,'' Malone said. "This is something that we need to preserve for the whole community, even the whole country.''
These six acres, he said, tell the story of slave, soldier and student.
"There are people living here who don't realize what history occurred on this site,'' Malone said. "I've met people traveling through town from Minnesota and even Hawaii who wanted to see this place because their ancestors fought here.''
The association is trying to raise $1.06 million.
The money would fund preserving the fort and rebuilding a portion of the fort with a moat.
It would fund renovating Trinity's library, band room and agriculture building into a museum that chronicles Limestone County's history from antebellum times through desegregation.
There also is a room where the city's black citizens used to vote.
The association also would beautify the grounds, which are home to various dedicated markers, such as the one for teacher Mary Perkins.
Perkins taught at Trinity 40 years. When she died in May 1948, her wish was that her family spread her ashes on the school grounds.
The Athens City Council and Limestone County Commission are bulldozing the classroom part of the school that was not salvageable.
Local historian Richard Martin is working grants and has spoken to the Athens Rotary Club about donating to the project.
Gill, a city councilman, got a $25,000 grant, to refurbish the baseball field.
The association named it in memory of the late Judge Eugene Pincham, Class of 1941. Pincham was a human rights activist, former Circuit Court judge of Cook County, Ill., and justice of the Appellate Court of Illinois.
In 1991, Pincham was a nominee for mayor of Chicago. Although he lost, Pincham carried 19 of the city's 50 wards.
Other famous Trinity graduates include C. Eric Lincoln and Patti J. Malone.
Lincoln was an author, theologian, ordained Methodist minister and a professor of religion at Duke University. His book "The Avenue, Clayton City'' won the Lillian Smith Award for best Southern fiction in 1988.
Malone, a former slave, went to Fisk University to join the Jubilee Singers. During autumn 1877, she performed with the group for Queen Victoria of England.
The Athens-Limestone Community Association is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that is raising money to renovate part of Trinity High School and the remainder of Fort Henderson on Brownsferry Street.
The organization has seven board members, including the board president, Edward Gilbert. The members are volunteering their time.

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