Chattanooga's Howard School celebrates 150 years

Sullivan Ruff will celebrate his 92nd birthday at Howard's 150th anniversary banquet and dance.

Chattanooga's first public school commemorates its 150th anniversary this month with a celebration of struggle, academic and social progress, and continuity.

Four days of events are planned Aug. 27-30 for alumni of the Howard School, including a meet and greet, a banquet and dance, a cookout and a worship service.

"Anything surviving 150 years ought to be celebrated," said former Principal Sullivan Ruff, who will celebrate his 92nd birthday at the anniversary banquet and dance Aug. 28. The Howard Alumni Association will honor all nine living present and past principals at Howard during the festivities.

Howard's 150th anniversary activities

Aug. 27: Meet and greet at Henry Bowles Gym atrium, 6 p.m.Aug. 28: Banquet and dance at the Chattanoogan, 7 p.m.Aug. 29: All-classes cookout at Howard's Gaston Stadium. Set up starts at 9 a.m., cookout from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.Aug. 30: Worship service at New Emmanuel Baptist Church, 11 a.m.

Dr. Lonita Davidson, a former principal, said Howard is one of the oldest predominantly black schools in the nation.

No free public schools existed in the South before the end of the Civil War in 1865. That was the year a black Congregational minister, the Rev. E.O. Tade, established Howard as a church school.

By 1869, Howard School had six teachers and 855 students of all ages. It was incorporated into the city school system in 1873 and named for Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau.

In May 1880, an article in Chattanooga Weekly Commercial - found in the local history archives at the Public Library in downtown Chattanooga cited Howard as No. 1 in the city for attendance.

Howard educated black children from Reconstruction up through today. Over the decades, the school turned out teachers, attorneys, business leaders and others able to compete professionally across the country, Davidson said. Among its graduates are former City Court Judge Walter Williams, state Rep. JoAnne Favors and the late Pro Football Hall of Famer Reggie White.

In the 21st century, the school has struggled with attendance, academics and graduation rates, but current Principal Zac Brown has the school headed in the right direction, Davidson said.

"If given opportunity, he will take it [the school] where it needs to go," she said.

Brown could not be reached for comment.

Davidson, who led the school from 1990-92, was Howard's first female principal and the leader who instituted the dress code as a means of focusing on academics rather than fashion. After Kirkman Technical High School closed downtown in 1991, Davidson changed the school's name from Howard School to Howard School of Academics and Technology to emphasize technical education.

But even then, there were still fights and concerns about gangs, according to news reports. A Chattanooga Times article in February 1994 listed Howard as the only school in Hamilton County to use metal detectors for student safety.

Dr. Paul Smith, Howard's principal for six years from 2007 to 2013, changed Howard's name back to The Howard School, but still advocated for more vocational training.

photo Former Howard School principal Sullivan Ruff poses for a portrait outside of the school.

Howard School holds a place in local history as the pride of the city's black community. The school's class of 1960 organized and led successful student sit-ins in downtown stores during the civil rights movement. And it's the school that produced one of the best choreographed and musically talented high school bands in the city.

Howard's maroon-and-gold-clad Marching Tiger band performed so well at the Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the late 1970s that the Mardi Gras Parade Committee issued a standing invitation to return any time, then-director David Sharp said in a 1978 article in the Chattanooga News-Free Press.

Howard's band, like its attendance and academics, had lost ground in recent years, but director Dexter Bell is hoping to revive it in an age when fewer students have access to school music programs or instruction. Bell has tutored some band students so well that they've gained scholarships to attend college.

These days, Howard's entire student population is in transition.

Spanish-speaking students make up about a quarter of the student body this year. And more than 60 percent of students at Eastside Elementary, a Howard feeder school, are Hispanic.

Davidson said having both Hispanics and blacks offers opportunity for diversity.

Many of Howard's Hispanic students will be the first in their families to graduate high school. Latino parents want their children to receive a diploma and are interested and involved in their education. So having both cultures together adds another layer of support to the school and will be a great experience, she said.

Knowing Howard's rich heritage produces hope for a bright future, Howard alumni say.

Former Principal Dr. Elaine Swafford said she's honored to have worked there.

"It [working at the school] gave me more than I could give," she said. "Being a part of that fabric changes you forever because you got to experience history."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yput or 757-6431.