In 1955, plans for an eleventh high school in the Birmingham Public School System were approved. Some residents objected to its chosen location, a residential area on 86th Street South at 8th Avenue South in the South East Lake neighborhood. The Old College Station Community Club wrote to the school board with concerns about traffic, sidewalks, the difficulty of developing athletic fields on the rugged terrain. Since the land for the school and the neighboring South East Lake Elementary School had already been purchased and plans developed by Birmingham architects Warren, Knight & Davis, the board dismissed the opposition. South East Lake High School was completed in 1957 and was renamed in honor of the former superintendent, L. Frazier Banks.
The design of the high school addressed the terrain on the 25-acre site by stretching out along a contour with a string of one-story classroom pavilions connected by covered walkways and interrupted by larger structures for the gymnasium, auditorium, lunchroom, and offices. The elementary school and high school athletic fields were across the street. Classrooms were finished with asphalt tile floors, acoustical ceilings, and fluorescent lighting to supplement the high clerestories set above the roofline of the connecting walkways. Construction was financed with funds from 1953 and 1956 bond issues. The school was opened with a capacity of 1,192 students, accepting only freshmen at first. The first graduating class matriculated in 1961.
The school’s athletic teams in that 1960-61 season won the Birmingham city football, basketball, and baseball championships. The football team, initially made up of those who didn’t make the Woodlawn team as freshmen, was coached by Jimmy Tarrant. The following season, in 1961, George White was named the head football coach at Banks, after only the team’s third season as a program. The 1965 Banks Jets football team went 10-0 and were named State Champions by the Associated Press and The Birmingham News before there was a playoff system for high school football. In 1969, White coached Banks in the first integrated game in Birmingham against Parker High School. White’s 1972 and 1973 teams went undefeated and secured consecutive 4A titles with the future University of Alabama and NFL standout Jeff Rutledge at quarterback. Banks High School was recognized nationally as a football powerhouse, even appearing in the pages of National Geographic.
In 1974, White led the Banks Jets in a legendary showdown against Woodlawn High School at Legion Field in front of an estimated crowd of 42,000. At that time, it was the most-watched high school game in the state. After the 1974-75 school year, White left Banks to become a running backs coach on Paul “Bear” Bryant’s staff at The University of Alabama. White was at Alabama from 1975 to 1980 and was present for a pair of National Championships in 1978 and 1979. White returned to high school coaching in 1990. He spent four years at Pleasant Grove High School and his final year at American Christian Academy. He finished his high school coaching career with an overall record of 116-68-5. He saw 88 players sign Division I scholarships during his time as a coach. He was inducted into the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame with the Class of 2009. In 2015, George White was portrayed by C. Thomas Howell in the film Woodlawn.
The last graduating class of Banks High School was in 1989. The following school year, students were either given the option to go to Woodlawn or Huffman High Schools. In 1990, Banks was converted into a middle school under the direction of superintendent Cleveland Hammonds. In October 2006, the Facilities and Technology Committee of the Birmingham Board of Education heard a recommendation from the new superintendent Stan Mims to close Banks and transfer its students to the new Ossie Ware Mitchell Middle School. Students from Banks relocated to their new campus in South East Lake in January 2007 and Banks Middle School was permanently closed. The campus was among 14 properties the school board placed on the market in 2008. Shortly after closing, the news media reported that student records were left in the school building after it closed. The school board made arrangements to relocate the files to a secure storage facility. However, in 2013, real estate agent and Birmingham City Council candidate Richard Rutledge announced the records remained unsecured. Shortly after, school system employees removed them from the vacant building. After several failed attempts to redevelop the former campus, the Birmingham City Council approved a contract to demolish the school in 2021.
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I remember in roughly 2010 or 2011 just driving around Birmingham. I happened upon this building and remembered thinking it must be a high school only to see that very sign in your picture. I looped around about three times trying to just look at this campus and how narrow it was in that state. It definitely was unusual to me. 2007 had brought about the closure of several schools in Birmingham, but I had never known about this one. Thanks for highlighting this one.