MARIETTA — Lemon Street High School’s Class of 1966 was its largest ever, although how big, exactly, was a topic of brief debate among its members.
Class president James Bennett thought it was 119-strong. One of his classmates suggested there were only 107 graduates that year.
What they all agree on, though, is that the all-Black school, which closed shortly after their graduation with the integration of Marietta City Schools, was a community, a place where everyone had each other’s back.
For proof, look no further than Tumlin Park, where dozens of graduates gathered Saturday for the class’s 55th-anniversary reunion.
“Wonderful,” Bennett said when asked to recall his experience at the school more than half a century ago. “It was like being at home every day with your relatives. We got along, we shared … it was just cohesive.”
Hilluard Echols agreed.
“We were like a big family,” he said. A veteran who spent more than 30 years with the United States Air Force, one of the things Echols most looked forward to once his service had ended was attending a reunion of the Class of ’66, which comes around every five years.
Ty Clark, 18, is the grandson of one of those graduates. He came to the reunion, and said he was impressed by the example set by Lemon Street High School students.
“As a Black person, you find yourself in a divided spot a lot of times. I think (the Class of ’66) took that division and used it on their side to become more unified,” he said. “So that’s why they’re still here, hanging out with each other, to this day. They took that adversity and used it to their advantage.”
Prior to school integration in the 1960s, Marietta’s Black student population attended Lemon Street Elementary at 353 Lemon Street, before crossing the street to Lemon Street High School. The high school building was razed in 1967. The grammar school closed in 1972 and was used for storage until this year, when the renovated elementary school building opened to night classes, an alternative school and home to the Marietta Performance Learning Center.
“It had its pros and its cons,” class member Alfreda Hill said of growing up in midcentury Marietta. “We were poor, but we didn’t know it, because we had everything we needed, you know?”
She recalled wondering why her school books always had someone else’s name in them, not realizing they were hand-me-downs from the area’s white schools.
“But other than that, to me, I grew up (having) a normal childhood,” she said. “I love Marietta.”
After the former classmates had had a chance to catch up, and after food had been served, they took a moment to remember those who had died.
A framed poster titled “deceased classmates” included the yearbook photos of 31 classmates who have died, some of whom attended the last reunion five years ago, Bennett said.
As the reunion came to a close, Bennett suggested they meet more frequently. With members of the class in their 70s, the camaraderie and the support network have grown more important than ever before, he said.
They agreed: every year going forward, the class will have a mini reunion.
“If we didn’t do anything but just come out here and fellowship — we don’t have to make it on a large scale, everybody bring your own food, and just get together and see each other, and then stay in touch to see how we can help each other,” said the woman who suggested it.