Son of former slaves crafted legendary career as educator became first principal of first high school for African Americans in Birmingham
ARTHUR HAROLD PARKER born May 7, 1870, in Springfield, Ohio was the son of former slaves. Under slavery many states prohibited slaves from learning to read and write, so like other freed slaves Parker’s parents stressed the importance of education to their children. Parker was a good student and planned to attend Oberlin College in Oberlin Ohio after high school, but his plans changed when his father was injured. Despite that setback Parker went on to become an educator for more than 50 years and the first principal of Industrial High School in Birmingham, Alabama. Industrial High School was the first high school for African Americans in Birmingham and since his retirement in 1939 bears A.H. Parker’s name.
After high school Parker headed south to find work as a barber in Decatur, Alabama, but decided to go to Birmingham, where two of his uncles were living, Arthur Sensabaugh, a Methodist pastor, and James Clayton, a schoolteacher. Parker’s Uncle Clayton saw he was an intelligent young man and recognized his teaching talents and encouraged him to take the teacher’s examination. After successfully passing the exam, Parker was offered a teaching position and became the 13th African American teacher in the Birmingham school system.
Parker was assigned to the second graders of the new Slater School which opened in January 1888. He advanced to the third and fourth graders the next fall. As a sign of things to come, the Slater School had recently purchased an organ, so Parker spent his spare time there learning to play. He became such an accomplished organist he would play for school programs, as well as side jobs, and teach music classes.
After three years as a teacher Parker was determined to become a school principal. In 1891, he successfully completed the principal’s examination and his first post came in September 1892, at the Cameron School. In addition to heading that growing school, Parker was superintendent of the Sunday school at 16th Street Baptist Church. In 1899, the Birmingham Board of Education agreed to create a high school for African American students. Superintendent J.H. Phillips selected Parker to become the sole teacher for the Industrial High School when it opened, on the second floor of the Cameron School, in September 1900. The next year Parker rose with his students and J. R. Coffey took charge of the entering freshmen and Parker’s role as principal was secured. He emphasized practical instruction in woodworking and sewing as the focus of instruction, supplemented by Grammar, Literature and Mathematics. Parker presided over the school’s first graduation ceremony, held June 3, 1904 at 16th Street Baptist Church.
In 1905, Parker was elected president of the Alabama State Teacher’s Association. He delivered an address to the assembled body at their next annual meeting in Mobile in April 1906. In September 1910, Industrial High moved to the Lane’s Auditorium building at 11th Street and 8th Avenue North. New specialized instructors were added to the faculty to teach cooking, sewing, and manual training. The next year a night school for adults was started, and then a summer school for teachers. Parker also participated in the first of a series of state-wide summer institutes for teachers in each county. In 1914, the school building was condemned by the city and a deal was struck to purchase the former United Presbyterian School at 8th Avenue and 9th Street North. Soon after a cluster of 14 cottages on an adjacent lot was purchased and converted for classroom use.
In 1915, Parker started teaching summer classes at Tuskegee Institute. In the fall of 1918, Industrial High School was temporarily closed to serve as an infirmary during an influenza epidemic. Beginning with the purchase of property in 1920 and culminating with the completion of the present A. H. Parker High School in 1924, the construction of a modern, well-equipped school for African Americans set Birmingham apart as a progressive city. Parker was awarded the Negro Citizens’ Loving Cup for “that citizen that had done the most for his race in 1924.” Parker retired as principal of Industrial High School in 1939 and died later that year. Funeral services were held in the school’s auditorium, with burial at Oak Hill Cemetery. The school was later renamed A. H. Parker High School in his honor. A statue of Parker is located on the lawn in front of the school.