Lakewood teacher leads students in 'wonderful' history project

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 13, 2014 

Lakewood Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Vernice McSwain has been an educator for nearly 20 years, but she never taught Alabama history, so the Virginia transplant looked for some help.

And she found it in her students.

Intent on making the subject meaningful to them, McSwain challenged these 9- and 10-year-olds to find as many historic markers as they could, photograph them and write 12 sentences about each one.

Two weeks later, these 26 students had combined to document more than 100 markers in east Alabama.

"They did a wonderful job," said McSwain, who also praised the parents. "I really was very impressed."

So was Curtis Barber, principal of the Phenix City school. He called McSwain "a great teacher" and noted the project's significance.

"It ties history to where they live," Barber said. "In other words, history is not just something you read about in a book; history also is what happened here in Phenix City."

The Ledger-Enquirer asked five of the students Thursday to pick their favorite marker and explain why they like it:

Jamyah Bennett, 10

Her favorite marker is the "Red Hill Batteries" on the west lawn of the Russell County Courthouse, describing one of the scenes from the Battle of Columbus during the Civil War. Here's the text:

"On April 16, 1865 the batteries of Confederate Major James Fleming Waddell of Seale, Alabama were positioned on the crest of this hill. Union forces under the command of Brevet Major General James H. Wilson were expected to launch a daylight attack from the west down old Broadnax Street, now 14th Street. Instead, the First Ohio first attacked down the Crawford Road in an attempt to capture the lower or wagon bridge, now the Dillingham Street Bridge. Although the Confederate position on Red Hill was heavily defended, it ultimately fell to the enemy during a night attack that developed from the north out Summerville Road."

Jamyah was amazed to find out the attack happened on Easter Sunday. She declared, "Easter Sunday should be peaceful!"

In addition to appreciating local history more, Jamyah also learned to notice her surroundings more.

"Ever since I did this project," she said, "every now and then when I pass by places, I see (the markers) out of the blue, and I'm like, 'How come I didn't see this before?'"

Logan Hunt, 10

His favorite marker is "Albert Love Patterson," on Fifth Avenue. Here's the text on one of the sides of the marker:

"The Coulter Building housed the law office of Albert Patterson. Patterson won the Democratic nomination for Attorney General of Alabama on June 4, 1954, campaigning on a platform to end criminal activity in Phenix City and the public corruption that allowed it to flourish. As a consequence of his efforts and his support of the Russell Betterment Association, Patterson was fatally shot on June 18, 1954 in the parking lot next to this building. Martial law was declared and General Walter J. 'Crack' Hanna and the Alabama National Guard came to Phenix City. The sacrifice of Albert Patterson led to the restoration of law and order in Phenix City."

Logan cracked up his classmates when he recalled what his father told him while he photographed the marker: "Get in the car quick and finish it before someone slits your throat."

Haley McDonald, 9

Her favorite marker is the "Tie-Snake" on the Phenix City Riverwalk. Here's the text:

"The Creek Indians believed this section of the river was inhabited by a giant Tie-Snake, a mythical monster that snared the unwary and dragged them down into the watery underworld. The Tie-Snake was but one of many strange creatures and natural forces featured in the myths and folk tales of the native people of this region. Among these were the Winds, the Thunder Helper, the Orphan, the Trickster Rabbit, and the Tarbaby. LaGrange lawyer W.O. Tuggle recorded many of these tales in the late 1800s. Joel Chandler Harris read Tuggle's collection, which formed part of the material out of which Harris fashioned his Uncle Remus stories."

Haley insists there wasn't such a snake, but she still likes the story.

"It could have been just the waves or the rapids that washed over them," she concluded. "There could be a monster alive that could do that, but I don't think it would be in Phenix City. But it's interesting they believed in a creature like that back then."

Haley sparked more laughter in the classroom when she summed up her initial reaction to the assignment this way: "Well, there goes another Saturday. Instead of watching TV, I guess I've got go out and learn about things. But when I started, it got pretty cool. … Some people say you have to see it to believe it. That's how I am."

Copeland Miller, 10

His favorite marker also is the Tie-Snake, but he presented another one for variety, "Six Indians Hanged," also on the Phenix City Riverwalk, near Dillingham Street Bridge. Here's the text:

"In November 1836, six Creek and Yuchi Indians were hanged near this spot for their role in a last desperate uprising against the frontier whites of Georgia and Alabama. Following decades of provocation from whites anxious to gain control of their lands, a small band of Indians attacked and burned the little hamlet of Roanoke in Stewart County, Georgia, killing many of its inhabitants. They also killed several whites in a raid on a stagecoach a few miles south of here, near the bridge over Yuchi Creek. Eyewitnesses said the Indians died bravely."

Copeland, whose 10th birthday was Thursday, wondered aloud, "Why would you be hanging Indians? That could really disturb some people."

Then he added, "You don't have to burn towns. They're just going to come back after you."

Jade Paul, 10

Her favorite marker is "Central Girard Colored School" at 1000 Dillingham St., adjacent to Franchise Missionary Baptist Church. Here's the text:

"Established in 1897, Central Girard School was the first facility constructed for 'colored' children in Phenix City. It was a four-room wooden building located on Church Avenue between Dillingham and Gale Street. Principals included G.W. Allen, 1897-1905; A. A. Peters, 1905-1923; J.M. Brown, 1923-1944; L.N. Randolph, 1944-1957; and Clarence Bibb, 1957. The first superintendent was L. P. Stough who served from 1923-1955. The school was remodeled in 1943 and burned in 1956."

"It was set on fire by the whites because they did not believe that colored children should even have schools," said Jade, who is white. "I don't think that's right. Black and white children deserve the same amount of rights. … If I grew up in all of that chaos, I probably would have lived through it, but I wouldn't be like I am today - happy."

Jade and Haley said they understand that hatred happened but they can't relate to it.

Haley, who also is white, said, "It's like, 'Why would you do that?"

"Yeah," added Jade, "the skin color doesn't matter; it's what's inside that matters."

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