AUGUSTA, Ga (WJBF)- In July, on Hometown History, we took a look at Kiokee Baptist Church, the oldest Baptist Church in Georgia. This month we visit Georgia’s oldest high school- the Academy of Richmond County.
“But to get the option to go to Richmond was really special because of the history of the school,” said Tim Spivey, alumnus and former principal at ARC.
Richmond Academy isn’t just the oldest public school in Georgia, but in the Southern United States.
It’s the 6th oldest high school in the entire nation. It was established in 1783 by the Richmond Academy Trustees as an all boys school in a building that no longer exists.
In 1791, a very special visitor came to town and spent time at Richmond Academy.
“That building didn’t last very long. But George Washington did visit there on his southern tour and spoke at the commencement,” said Spivey.
The old building on Telfair Street was the home for Richmond Academy between 1802 and 1926. The school had ups and downs over the centuries and was forced to close for a short time because of the Civil War.
“During the Civil War it was used as a hospital for the Confederacy. Then after the war, the army used it. I think around 1869 it was turned back over to the Trustees,” Spivey explained.
After the war, Richmond Academy returned as a military school and still has an exceptional JROTC program.
In 1926 the Trustees leased the school to the Richmond County Board of Education for 999 years. The school transitioned to a new building near Summerville, where it has remained ever since.
It continued to be an all boys school until the 1950’s when girls were allowed to attend. And in 1966 seven African American boys integrated the school; Freddie Welcher Jr. was one of them.
“ARC came up on the list because they had an excellent Science department. And in particular in that science department was Chemistry. So my buddy Benny and I decided to come up to take advantage of the education that we could get,” explained Welcher.
Welcher said he always like science and that several of his science teachers had a big influence on him.
“We had an excellent science high school teacher, Rosa T. Beard, and that just inspired us, well me in particular, but the others also, to just delve into science,” he said. “We just pursued it here. And we had Mrs. Otwell as a high School science teacher and we took Advanced Chemistry. And that made a difference, really, for grounding our college activities.”
Integration was highly controversial. For weeks, chaos reigned all over the country as those opposed to integration protested.
Welcher remembered his first day at Richmond Academy. He kept in mind that he was there for a reason and everything else was just noise.
“The first day really wasn’t that bad, because we just stayed focused on why we were here. And there was a lot of, I guess, disagreement, but we were here and the teachers were fair,” Welcher said. “But, the atmosphere was tense throughout. But, if you remained focused on what your purpose was, you were able to get through and overcome a lot of things,”
According to Welcher, the tension didn’t go away during his time there. However, at the end of the year, he became part of Richmond Academy’s first integrated graduating class.
He maintains that his time at the school shaped his future.
“I was able to attend Notre Dame for 4 years because we had a national merit kind of scholarship and I was able to work with Continental Canning Company,” Welcher said.
Welcher went on to become an educator in the STEM field– eventually teaching at Augusta Technical College.
The most interesting part of Richmond Academy’s history may be many of its graduates.
Spivey was so fascinated by them he began a program to recognize them.
“I thought to myself, of all the schools in this country, Richmond being one of the oldest schools in the country, why don’t we have a Hall of Fame? I can’t remember the first year, but we started it and it’s been a great success.”
The first year was in 2012.
Each year since, they induct 10 people into the Hall of Fame and honor another group, usually a sports team.
This year they are honoring those 7 young African American men who were brave enough to sign up for classes in 1966.
The Hall of fame is full of people who went on to do big things after graduation including generals, professional athletes and coaches, and successful musicians.
“Ed Turner is going in this year. Ed Turner and Number 9, his band Number 9. And over the last 15 or so years, he’s raised like $1.5 million for local charities through his concerts at the Imperial,” said Spivey, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2020.
Some Alumni that may sound familiar are Medal of honor recipient, Jimmie Dyess, former White House Correspondent, Judy Woodruff, and Augusta University President, Dr. Brooks Keel.
Spivey has his own favorites including Track and Field Olympian Forrest “Spec” Towns.
“He graduated from Richmond in 1932. He played football. He didn’t run track. He didn’t run track because he couldn’t afford– his parents couldn’t afford shoes. Track shoes,” Spivey said.
Towns went on to play football and run Track at the University of Georgia before becoming a gold medalist at the 1936 Olympic games.
Richmond Academy has a museum in the corner of its media center paying homage to the 239 years of history. Soon, it will be remodeled and a museum classroom will be preserved with old ink well desks that are, for now, still being used.
As for the board of trustees, they maintain the old ARC and old Medical College of Georgia buildings. Each year they award a scholarship to a deserving Richmond Academy Senior. That’s the extent of their role with the school anymore– at least for the next 904 years.
Hey Augusta. That’s just part of your Hometown History.
Photojournalist: Will Baker.