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.”
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.
After the fire…
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