Ensley High School

The first Ensley School was located at Avenue G between 23rd and 24th Streets, the same two streets that the existing school is located, but now on Avenue J. The school was a wooden structure built by the City of Ensley and opened in September 1901 with only grades 9-11. It was financed under the provisions of the newly-ratified Alabama Constitution of 1901. A $7,000 loan for school construction was repaid from a special tax on saloons. In 1903, the school was renamed Bush School after the first Superintendent of Ensley Schools, Ernest Forrest Bush. The existing Bush School carries his name also. Only two students, Margaret Wright and Mattie May Williams, graduated in the school’s first class of 1903. Ten more graduated in 1904, ten in 1905 and sixteen in 1906. There was no class of 1907 as the school added a 12th grade. The next two graduating classes were comprised of three and eight girls, respectively.

The school moved to a new building in 1908 and joined the Birmingham City School System in 1910 when Ensley was annexed into Birmingham. The new Ensley High School was designed by local architect David O. Whilldin, who also designed many notable landmarks across the city including Legion Field, the Thomas Jefferson Hotel and the Pizitz Department Store. The high school’s three-story, 184,000-square foot building occupied 8 acres with athletic fields and parking lots. A separate competition gym and weight room added 20,000-square-feet of enclosed space. The school’s colors were black and gold and their teams were known as the “Yellow Jackets”. For most of its life, Ensley, along with Phillips, Ramsay, Woodlawn and West End were Birmingham’s “Big Five” high schools with notable academic and athletic traditions and rivalries.

During its first decade, Ensley principal Roy Dimmitt, assisted by student Joseph Kantor compiled detailed statistical data on the performance of 152 boys to determine the degree to which cigarette smoke affected their “efficacy”. He found that the students who smoked were consistently out-scored by their nonsmoking counterparts. By his calculation, only 26% of the boys at Ensley High School were smokers, but almost two thirds of those who failed a year or withdrew from school partook in tobacco. His findings were published in Henry Ford’s 1914 anti-smoking volume “The Case Against the Little White Slaver.”

Ensley High School

Ensley High School

A major addition to the school was completed in 1926, increasing the capacity from 947 to 2,050 as the city’s high school enrollment ballooned. Millionaire philanthropist Erskine Ramsay donated a $500 pottery kiln for use by the art department in 1930. In 1936, over a 100 students from Ensley High School contracted food poisoning; which was traced back to cream puffs from a local bakery. The Jefferson County Health Department, which had been unable to maintain their inspections during the Great Depression, inspected the bakery and discovered conditions to be filthy.

Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Ensley High School was an all-white school. The high school was integrated that year without incident. However, racial segregation in the Birmingham area was still prevalent, especially after the collapse of the nearby steel industry. By the 1970s, the Ensley High student body was predominantly African-American.

In 1994, Ensley High School was the site of gang-related violence when 15-year-old Andre Allen was shot in the chest outside of the band room during the lunch period. In 1999, girl’s basketball coach Roderick Jackson tried and failed to get the school and the Birmingham Board of Education to give his team access to the same equipment, transport, and funding enjoyed by the boys’ teams. He was fired from his coaching job in May 2001 and sued under Title IX, 1972 federal legislation that requires non-discrimination in publicly funded education programs. Lower courts upheld the firing but the United States Supreme Court faulted their decisions and called for new hearings on the merits of the case. The Birmingham BOE settled the dispute with Jackson in November 2006.

The historic Ensley High School closed after the 2005-2006 academic school year due to declining enrollment. Students from Ensley were transferred to the newly built Jackson-Olin High School. In May 2006, valedictorian JaVone Williams led the 134 members of the school’s last graduating class across the state to receive their diplomas at Bill Harris Arena. After closing, the building was used by the Birmingham Board of Education as a storage warehouse and garage space for the system’s transportation fleet.

In the early hours of July 17, 2018, a passerby reported a fire inside Ensley High School. Thick heavy smoke could be seen from the interstate. By the time Birmingham Fire & Rescue made it to the scene, Ensley High School was engulfed in flames. Neighbors believe lightning may have hit the school and started the fire. Officials have deemed the fire as “suspicious” since the building did not have working utilities. In 2019, the Birmingham City Council voted to purchase the former school campus from the Board of Education for $50,000. The City of Birmingham plans to solicit proposals to redevelop the property. Neighbors complained to city officials that the old school was an eyesore

In April 2021, it was announced that plans are moving forward to redevelop the former Ensley High School property as a 244-unit housing development. The Birmingham City Council approved an ordinance to sell the campus to North Carolina-based Zimmerman Properties for $50,000. The city will also provide incentives for the project in the form of a grant of up to $1.5 million, some of which will come from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Home Investment Partnerships Program. The new apartments are being developed in partnership with the Housing Authority of Greater Birmingham. The total project is expected to cost $54.6 million. Ensley High School will be demolished to make way for the new development.

Ensley High School
Ensley High School, 2017

Ensley High School

Chemical City School

Ensley High School
According to a 1950s news article, the library at Ensley High School housed 10,000 books.
Chemical City School
Microscopes and projectors were left behind in one of the Biology classrooms.
Chemical City School
A closet in the Chemistry department was filled with dozens of dry chemicals including several bottles of Ammonium Nitrate.
Chemical City School
The dry chemicals were thought to have been removed over 10 years ago when Ensley closed.

Chemical City School

Chemical City School
A large glass bottle of Sulfuric Acid sits among the many chemical bottles.

Ensley High School

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Chemical City School

Ensley High School

Ensley High School

Chemical City School

Ensley High School

Ensley High School
Before central heating and air, the school used radiators to heat the building during the winter months.
Chemical City School
The former school was used as storage after it closed. Dozens of desks were stacked inside the gymnasium.
Chemical City School
These trophies were scattered around the school before I put them in this trophy case for a photo.
Ensley High School
The drop-down ceiling and wood paneling were installed during a 1960s renovation.
Ensley High School
A piano left behind in the downstairs library.
Chemical School
The steel used to build the staircase inside the school was made locally by U.S. Steel.

After the fire…

Ensley High School

Ensley High School

Ensley High School

50803745428_b49569960e_k

Ensley High School

Ensley High School

Thank you for reading. You can find me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Check out my book Abandoned Birmingham for more amazing photos from Ensley High School as well as many other locations from across Birmingham. To receive my blog in your email, please subscribe on the main page.

35 comments

  1. Hi there,
    First of all, your photography is amazing. Do you know of any website or photographer who captures similar types of images within the state of Texas? I’m always looking for these hidden or forgotten places and the story behind them.

    thanks, John

    Like

    1. Another disgusting example of tax payers’ money squandered yet again not to mention letting a historical beautiful building fall to ruins. Shame on the the Alabama Governor and Alabama State Educators.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It has nothing to do with the Alabama Governor. It’s the ignorance of the feckless Birmingham, AL Board of Education. They have plunged the school system into complete disarray. It is so bad that the State of Alabama is stepping in to correct this mess.

        Like

    2. Peggy what year did you graduate from Woodlawn? Ensley and Woodlawn were sports competitors until they closed Ensley.

      Like

    3. Ensley High School was located near downtown Ensley a couple of blocks from Avenue I. If you have ever traveled 20/59 South toward Tuscaloosa there are two exits, one at 20th Street and the other at Avenue I, both exit in Ensley.

      Like

    4. PEGGY, where have you been. Ensley and Woodlawn were two of the original “Big Five” in Birmingham. Have you heard of the other three. In case you have not they are Phillips high school, West End high school and Ramsey high school. Perhaps Google next time instead of display your ignorance for the world to see. Ensley high school function for nearly 100 years, I guess you just missed it. Did you know your next-door neighbors? By the way, Woodlawn was Ensley’s biggest rival, especially in football. Ever hear of the, Crippled Children’s Clinic football game? I guess not.

      Like

  2. I’m just seeing your book link of all days my beloved school is burned. Sad day. I remember those classrooms. I loved Ensley High!!!!
    Class of 2002

    Like

  3. Thank you for the photo journal of Ensley High School. Even though it is sad to see this grand old high school in such a state of disrepair, it is good to see the pictures of my high school. I have many memories of my time there. Your work is awesome. Thanks, again. EHS Yellow Jackets! c/o ’77

    Like

  4. Ensley High School is no more as it burned down yesterday morning under suspicious circumstances. Glad these pictures and story exist so thanks to the author. I graduated from Ensley in 1982 so I knew the school and area quite well.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. My beloved Alma Mater! So heart broken that is burned down a few days ago.coukd you go back to the school now and take some pics? Or, if you have the time, explore some of the pictures taken by former students on Facebook. “THE STING WILL NEVER DIE!”

    Like

  6. When were your photos taken? It’s hard for me to believe they left trophies in the school when they closed it and they didn’t find a new home for books. What a waste and complete disregard for history.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The mascot was a hornet? wow, didn’t know that, my school has the same mascot in the same pose XD, and great photos.

    Like

  8. I an doing a research project to get a historical marker placed at the site of EHS, and I find a lot of cofusion over the date that EHS was “opened” for use. You may not know this, but the original school was called Ensley School, and it was located at Avenue G between 23rd and 24th Streets, the same two streets that the existing school is located on, but now (until demolition this year is completed) on Avenue J. The Ensley School was a wooden structure built by the City of Ensley and opened in September, 1901, and was renamed Bush School in 1903 after the first Superintendent of Ensley Schools, Ernest Forrest Bush. The existing Bush School carries his name also. The remaining students of the “Ensley School” were transferred to the new Bush School in 1923 when that school was completed. I still am unable to “tie down” much on what happened between 1901 and 1910 because the first graduating class that was “credited” as graduated from Ensley High School (two students) in 1903. They must have still been holding some high school classes at Ensley/Bush School until the “new” Ensley High School was completed. I have not been able to find the actual starting date nor the completed date of EHS.
    I did discover that the building project of EHS was stopped (at some point) due to funding issues, but I “think” that two rooms were completed and used until competion of the rest of the structure in _____? I also read that funding for the completion was raised by a tax placed on the many saloons in the area. Interesting if true. I think many of the reports placed the building completion date with the date Ensley was annexed into Birmingham in 1910. That is the date I am proposing on the above mentioned historic marker. If you know anything that is wrong with the above, please advise. I also would love to have a picture of the old Ensley School if anyone has one or knows where one is posted that I can copy.
    Bill Lammert, 1953 graduate of “Old EHS.”

    Like

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