From 1882 until its merger with the whites-only Alabama Education Association in 1969, the largely African American Alabama State Teachers Association (ASTA, or STA in some sources) served as an important organization for promoting funding for African American education and later advocating for voting rights and the desegregation of public schools. It also ensured that African American heritage and history was documented and shared to benefit all Alabamians and provide a better understanding of the state. After the merger, the organizations combined under the name Alabama Education Association.
ASTA was established at Knox Academy, a normal school in Selma, Dallas County, in April 1882 by leading educators in the state. The list of more than 100 educators included Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute (present-day Tuskegee University), William Hooper Councill of the State Colored Normal School in Huntsville (present-day Alabama A & M University), Edward M. Brawley of the Alabama Baptist Normal and Theological School (present-day Selma University), and State Superintendent of Education Henry Clay Armstrong.
The organization had been inspired by early proponents of African American education in the 1860s and 1870s, most notably white American Missionary Association state coordinator John Silsby and African American legislator and freedman Peyton Finley. A representative from Montgomery, Montgomery County, Finley participated in the construction and state funding of African American schools, including Lincoln Normal School in Marion, Perry County, which evolved into Alabama State University in Montgomery. In 1874, however, funding for African American education was cut, and the 1875 Constitution mandated school segregation and abolished the state board of education and the state school fund. These events, together with the fear of white mobs vandalizing African American schools throughout the 1870s and early 1880s, threatened to eradicate African American education in the South just as it was beginning. ASTA confronted these threats by creating strategies to generate private funds for building schools for African Americans and supporting educators fired by discriminatory county school boards. Members also communicated through newspapers to promote the importance of African American education in Alabama and produced African American history curricula for implementation in schools around the state.
ASTA was initially an interracial organization, with William Burns Paterson of the Lincoln Normal School and George M. Elliott of Knox Academy serving as the first and only white presidents of the organization. (Co-founder Henry Clay Armstrong was also white.) In 1892, however, Councill declared that Paterson’s school had an unfair advantage for grants because he was white, which quickly motivated Paterson and other white educators to split with ASTA. Councill became an activist against discrimination in Alabama after being removed from the first-class section of a train despite purchasing a first-class ticket. He lodged a complaint against the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887 and the state legislature pressured Councill to resign from his presidency at the college; he was reinstated the following year.
Two of the organization’s early presidents, John W. Beverly and George Washington Trenholm, succeeded Paterson as the first African American presidents of Alabama State University (ASU). They developed the college as a center for ASTA activity beginning in the early 1900s. Beverly authored a state history textbook in 1901 entitled A History of Alabama, and Trenholm co-founded the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools (NATCS) with John Robert Edward Lee of Tuskegee Institute in 1904. NATCS and its later rebranding as the American Teachers Association (1937) worked with ASTA to develop school curricula promoting pride and citizenship among African Americans and to dispel harmful stereotypes in textbooks. Its members also began collecting statistics regarding the number of students in schools, the number of new educators graduating each year, and funding sources for the construction of African American schools.
Harper Councill Trenholm (son of George Washington Trenholm) became ASU president in 1925 and served as ASTA president from 1931-1933. He continued building relations between ASTA and NATCS and forged alliances with the National Education Association (NEA), the American Association for the Study of Negro Life, and The Journal of Negro Education. Later, in 1935, ASTA and NATCS shepherded through accreditation for Alabama State and 19 other African American educational institutions. These institutions included laboratory high schools managed by Alabama State and Atlanta University that focused on science-based progressive education methods that incorporated the latest research in classroom organization, course scheduling, and extracurricular programs.
In addition, ASTA developed a two-year Negro History Project to survey educators about improving African American history education in their classrooms, an effort that helped establish national Negro History Week. Trenholm encouraged African American schools to participate in history pageants, and ASTA published the 1936 Handbook of the Alabama State Teachers Association, which highlighted heritage projects, and produced a half-hour radio broadcast about African American heritage on WBRC in Birmingham, Jefferson County. From 1930 to 1938, ASTA members met in committees that focused on developing curricula related to topics such as agriculture, grammar school, music, and home economics and formed associations of science and math teachers and college administrators and teachers.
Civil Rights Advocacy
ASTA served as an early supporter of the voting-rights movement and desegregation of Alabama’s public schools, beginning in the late 1930s. In 1938, ASU professor W. McKinley Menchan organized the ASTA Vote Commission, which pinpointed obstacles to voting rights such as the poll tax and resistance from county boards of registrars. The commission emphasized that the only way to resolve education inequality was to participate in the legislative process. In 1952, president J. D. Thompson developed a voter-registration drive and a welfare fund for black educators who were fired by county education boards for attempting to vote and later for participating in civil rights activities, beginning with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Later, many black educators received assistance from the welfare fund after they lost their jobs or were demoted when schools closed or were restructured after systems integrated under court orders in the 1960s. ASTA continued to support local movements by holding its 1956 and 1960 general meetings in Montgomery, despite tensions voiced by the governor and city officials over the bus boycott and the rise of student and faculty sit-ins.
In the mid-1960s, the NEA worked with ASTA at the state and local level in the fight for civil rights. In March 1966, for instance, the Wilcox County Teachers Association asked the NEA to investigate the dismissal of ten tenured black teachers by the county board of education for attempting to send black children to white schools the previous year. In August 1966, the Alabama legislature repealed the State Teacher Tenure Law at the urging of the Wilcox County Board of Education and was supported by the boards in Bullock, Dallas, Lowndes, Marengo, Montgomery, and Perry Counties. Lawsuits, including U. S. and Thomas v. Wilcox County Board of Education (1966), Lee v. Macon County Board of Education (1967), and Alabama State Teachers Association v. Lowndes County Board of Education (1968) exposed the discrimination that African American teachers and students continued to face despite the federal order to integrate public education originally mandated by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Fred Gray served as attorney for ASTA and associated black plaintiffs in both 1967 and 1968, as well as for ASTA in the Alabama State Teachers Association v. Alabama Public School and College Authority case. He unsuccessfully argued that African Americans lacked freedom of choice when Auburn University constructed the Alabama Extension Center in Montgomery to serve a majority white student population in 1969; it would become the foundation of Auburn University Montgomery.
Merger with AEA
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law in July, prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, public education, voting, employment, and other areas. Its enactment prompted the NEA to approve Resolution 12, which required states with dual teacher associations, including the AEA and ASTA in Alabama, to integrate by 1966 or the NEA would withdraw its affiliation. The AEA and ASTA, through the facilitation of the NEA, began meeting often about a merger, beginning in January 1965, and also on how to foster better communications between the organizations and create better working conditions for black teachers.
In February 1966, AEA delegates voted to open membership to African Americans and received only one negative vote. But AEA president O. B. Carter indicated to the press that the lack of a unanimous consensus, along with AEA’s large amount of debt, meant that the two associations would not merge at that time but would, “eventually.” He also noted that the respective executive committees were working well together and toward a merger. ASTA executive secretary Joe E. Reed indicated the vote was “a great step forward” but that ASTA wanted a full merger. In the meantime, Reed encouraged local ASTA chapters to merge with local AEA chapters.
Leading up to the merger, AEA and ASTA officials agreed that each organization would respect the other as distinct entities according to their size. Because AEA membership was twice as large as ASTA membership, the merged organizations would elect their officials in a six-year rotation. Former AEA members would serve as president for four years and former ASTA members would serve for two years. In May 1969, AEA and ASTA held individual delegate meetings where they voted on the final agreement. ASTA voted 365 to 7 in favor, and AEA voted 364 to 155.
On July 30, 1969, ASTA leaders James A. Smith, Joe Reed, and James Dunn, and AEA leaders Raymond Christian, Paul R. Hubbert, and W. Brad Stephens signed the final document completing the merger. ASTA president Joe Reed became executive secretary of AEA and would remain in that position until his retirement in 2011. The merger brought together 30,000 educators in the state and created an organization that has been politically influential ever since.
- Gray, Jerome, Joe Reed, and Norman W. Walton. History of the Alabama State Teachers Association. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1985.
- Loder-Jackson, Tondra L. Schoolhouse Activists: African American Educators and the Long Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2015.
- Sherer, Robert G. Subordination or Liberation? The Development and Conflicting Theories of Black Education in Nineteenth Century Alabama. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: The University of Alabama Press, 1977.