Digital image of the original article, printed in 1979

Image © 2003 by David Faulkner

The History of Coffee (High School)

Florence, Alabama


Mrs. J. E. McDonald, Sr.  ("Miz Mac")

(Updated and very slightly edited in 2014, from the original 1979 version also presented below in image form.)

Seventy-nine years ago, with the turn of the century, Florence and Lauderdale County had one, non-accredited high school.  It was not Coffee High School, but Burrell Normal School with a High School Department for Black students, which was privately endowed.

In 1907, the Lauderdale County Board of Education established Lauderdale County High School at Rogersville, Alabama.  Patton School, the oldest Florence City school, graduated students at the eighth-grade level.  This was the ultimate in education offered by the City of Florence.

However, according to the records, the eighth-grade curriculum of that day was quite different from the eighth-grade offerings of today.

There was a reason for Florence's not providing education on a high-school level at that time.  Upon completion of the eighth grade at Patton School, a student could enter pre-normal work at the then State Normal College, now the University of North Alabama.  [Note: “Normal” schools were principally dedicated to producing graduates capable of undertaking careers in teaching and education.]  The pre-normal work lasted two years.  Completing this work was considered approximately equivalent to graduating from high school. With completion of this two-year schooling, entrance to college could be gained by passing an entrance examination.

Finally, in 1914, the Florence City Board of Education tackled the idea of establishing a four-year high school for White boys and girls.  The Board had already taken over the maintenance of Burrell High School and had also established Seaten Elementary School for Black boys and girls.  High-school attendance was placed on a “tuition” basis.  After the completion of seven years in any one of these schools, Patton, Brandon, and Fourth Ward (now Gilbert), a student was ready for high school training.

To build a high school took land and money.  This was a big undertaking for Florence, whose population had hovered between 6000 and 7000 for many years.

Florence was facing a new era and recognized it.  High school grades 8, 9, 10, and 11 were offered for the first time in the Fall of 1914 [Note: The same year that World War I began.].  Classes were held in the rented antebellum Burtwell home on North Pine Street, across from the present Episcopal Church Parish House.  The north wing of this house still stands and is known today as the J. Will Young home.  After two years, this property was sold and the high school was moved to the second floor of the Hooks House building, which extended from the northeast side of Seminary Street to the existing alley.

By this time, land had been acquired by the City on what was then Jackson Highway [now Hermitage Drive], at the head of Walnut Street.  A good part of this land was donated by the late Mrs. A. D. Coffee, daughter-in-law of Florence's founder, General John Coffee, with the stipulation that the new school bear the name of Coffee High School.

The City tried to purchase the land where the old Florence Junior High School was later built, but the owner at that time refused to sell.  Therefore, the original Coffee High School building had to be constructed at an angle to Walnut Street.  This building later became Appleby Junior High School.

Coffee High School opened its doors in September of 1917 [Note: The year before World War I ended.], with Mr. F. T. Appleby as Superintendent of Florence City Schools, and with Mr. J. N. Howell as Principal, with an enrollment of nearly 400 students.  Tuition was charged; it was $12.50 per semester.  Coffee High School served both the town and its surrounding area.

The first Senior Class, eleven in number, graduated in June, 1918.  By 1928, there were 28 Seniors and 347 Freshmen.  There were many dropouts and failures.  Coffee High School was strictly a college preparatory institution.

All students took at least two years of Latin, French, or Spanish.  Four years of Latin were offered, along with four years of English, Science, Math, and History.  The following electives could be taken if adequate grades would allow: chorus, art, orchestra, shorthand, typing, and manual arts.  Understandably, many referred to Coffee High School as “Coffee Academy.”

World War I, construction and completion of Wilson Dam and of the Tennessee Valley Authority [TVA] nitrate plants in 1933, and the ensuing complete development of the Tennessee River, World War II, the Korean conflict, all took place.  By this time, in 1951, Coffee High School had moved into a new building on Cherry Street, where it remained.  For several years before, Coffee High School had been bursting at the seams, even to the point of having a two-session school day, with one from 7 a.m. to noon, and one from 12:30 p.m. To 5 p.m.

While the new school was under construction, there was a move by the Florence Realty Board to name the new school “Florence High School.”  Superintendent of Schools Mr. J. W. Powell said, “No, because Coffee High School has too much tradition.”  So, in 1948, the summer school students, under Mr. Powell's leadership, handed out and collected ballots on the matter of the name to the citizens of Florence.  The name “Coffee High School” was almost unanimously favored and was retained, but as a “new” Coffee.  Now it would be named for a specific “Coffee,” namely, General John Coffee, who in July of 1818 had founded Florence, Alabama.

In the Fall of 1814, General John Coffee was on his way to join General Andrew Jackson at New Orleans, to stop the ensuing British attack.  General Coffee stopped for several days and encamped his Tennessee Volunteers.  In his log, he described the area of the encampment as a “flat area at the top of a short hill.”  It is believed that their camp was pitched on the same site as the location on Cherry Street, where the new Coffee High School was built. He wrote that with his staff he proceeded on to Pope's Tavern, a quarter mile away from the camp site.

During the 1930's and early 1940's, former coach Rufus G. Hibbett served as Principal.  Mr. Tom Braly became Principal in 1945 [the year that World War II ended], after serving several years as head coach of all sports as well as classroom teacher.

At the time of Mr. Appleby's death in 1932, Mr. J. W. Powell became Superintendent of Florence City Schools.  Upon Mr. Powell's retirement, Mr. Rufus G. Hibbett, who had served Coffee High School as coach, teacher, and Principal, became Superintendent of Florence City Schools.  During all these years, the Superintendent retained his office in the first Coffee High School building.

Mr. Braly remained Principal until his death in 1963 [the same year in which President John F. Kennedy was murdered].  At that time, Coffee High School's sports stadium was renamed “Tom Braly Memorial Stadium” by action of the Florence City Board of Education.  Mr. E. W. Wadsworth became the next Principal.  In 1966, Mr. Ralph Smith became the Principal and has served 13 years in this post.  Serving as Assistant Principals are Coach Buddy Moore and Mr. Howard Robinson.

Coffee High School was racially integrated in the mid-1960's, without incident.  We are all Coffee High School.

In 1970, Coffee High School, along with 13 other high schools in Alabama, received its fifty-year certificate of accreditation from the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges.  Re-evaluation has taken place periodically throughout the years.  Coffee High School was accredited continuously since 1920, and is proud of this accomplishment.

Coffee High School has an unsurpassed tradition of excellence.  No high school in our State of Alabama is better known or has a better name and reputation.  Its sons and daughters are to be found around the globe.  Among them, are men and women of renown.

Let us all remember that we are not Mary Jones or Bill Smith...we are Coffee High School.  Let's wear our name well and help to carry on the established good name of our Alma Mater, Coffee High School.

8 September 2014