Charles H. Atherton
There were only a few cities in Texas where African Americans could receive a high school education one hundred years ago. So in 1893 when Houston’s first high school, known then as Colored High School, opened, students came from all over the city as well as surrounding towns to get their education.
Charles H. Atherton became the first principal of the Houston high school and he stayed in that position for twenty years. Thus he became a pioneer educator in Texas. The school is now known as Booker T. Washington High School and has celebrated its centennial.
Atherton first arrived in Texas in the 1880’s after graduating from Mica College in his native land, Jamaica. Before becoming principal of Colored High School, Atherton was principal of an elementary school in Houston. It was known as the Third Ward School and Atherton served at its helm for at least five years before becoming principal of the high school.
The new high school was impressive. The two-story brick façade with basement cost $30,150 and was situated in the most prestigious community for Negroes in Houston, known as the Fourth Ward and located just west of downtown. And it was very near the pioneer Baptist church for Houston’s African Americans, Antioch Baptist Church.
Atherton and his teachers and students must have felt immense pride in their new educational facility with three floors, ten rooms and a bell tower. Atherton spearheaded the school’s programs for teaching English, Latin, Mathematics, Science and History on a high school level. His early teaching staff consisted of J.H. Crawford as assistant principal and J.D. Ryan who succeeded Atherton as principal and eight other teachers.
The first graduate of the high school in 1896 was Wright Munger wrote Dr. Ira B. Bryant in his book, “The Development of Houston Negro Schools”. Dr. Bryant and his wife Thelma Scott Bryant both graduated form the school in the 1920’s and are thus among more than 15,000 graduates. He later became principal of the school. She remembers catching the street car to get to school but that many did not have the 5 cents fare and walked miles to school. Ms. Bryant also remembers Atherton’s two daughters, Alma and Mamie who followed their parents’ pats and became school teachers at the high school where their father had been principal. Atherton’s wife, Alma E. was also a teacher.
Atherton spent his entire life as and educator, including serving as dean and professor at Prairie View A & M University. Even in religion, Atherton was concerned with education. He was very active with the Methodist church and recruited many of his teachers from Wiley College and other Methodist colleges. He also headed the Olivewood Cemetery Association which operated the Methodist cemetery
for Negroes in Houston where he is buried under an old leaning pecan tree. Upon his death, the Houston Informer noted that, “Professor Atherton never engaged in self-laudation, nor tooted his horn” and that, “his death removed from the educational field, one of the veterans who helped make possible the high rating of the public schools in Houston.”
In 1932, the Charles H. Atherton Elementary School was named in his memory. The current principal, Dr. Albert L. Lemons, tells his students that their dreams can come true by following the paths of Mr. Atherton as well as noted school alumni, Barbara Jordan, Mickey Leland, and George Foreman.