Union Baptist Church, 2024. Photo by Margaret Hopkins.ALTON - On June 8, 1924, Union Baptist Church held a service honoring Alexander Whitfield, Anna Margaret Cole, and Willie Alexander Young, members of Alton High School’s graduating class of 1924. At the service, Dr. George Samuels gave the invocation. Dr. Samuels was the first Black physician in Alton and he delivered jazz great Miles Davis several years later, on May 26, 1926. Dr. Samuels’ son, George Samuels Jr., Alton’s first Black pharmacist, gave a piano solo. Several other service participants listed in the newspaper are recognizable as well: Harry Coates, Harriet I. Robinson, and Minnie Hunter.

Whitfield, Cole, and Young were the only three Black graduates of the 90-person senior class at Alton High that year, and all three had attended the segregated Dunbar School before high school. Anna Margaret Cole’s father, Simon Peter Cole, was for a time the principal of Dunbar School. He worked hard to create opportunities for Alton’s Black students, petitioning for better resources and giving of his own time to form a carpentry class for students on Saturdays. In return, his house was burned down and he was blamed for it, though a jury later acquitted him. While Alton High had been technically integrated since 1873, it would be decades before the school district was truly integrated and equal opportunity given to all students. Whitfield was the valedictorian of his graduating class, but according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper article on June 12, 1924, when he tried to board a local steamboat for a celebratory excursion with his classmates several days after graduation, he was ordered off.

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The first school for Black students in Alton opened in the basement of the Union Baptist Church in the 1850s. Union Baptist Church continued supporting, prioritizing, and celebrating the education of its members even after the Alton School District began admitting Black students. It is no surprise that the 1924 graduates were honored with a service there. In the 1937 centennial publication (link below) is the following quote: “The Union Baptist Church of today, as in the past, is interested in the improvement and advancement of her people.”

Alexander Whitfield

Anna Margaret Cole

Willie Young

Sources

90 Awarded Diplomas at High School.” Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, IL), June 13, 1924.

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Alton High School (Alton, Ill). 1924. “The Tatler.” https://archive.org/details/AltonHS_Tatler_1924

Arson Charge is Dismissed in City Court.” Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, IL), January 17, 1924.

Coates, H. B., and Union Baptist Church (Alton, Ill). Centennial Committee. 1937. Historical Sketch of the Union Baptist Church, 1837-1937: Especially Prepared for the Centennial, June 20-27, 1937. https://archive.org/details/union-baptist-centennial-1937

Committee on Black Pioneers. 2001. 20th Century African American Leaders in Alton: Committee on Black Pioneers, Alton Museum of History and Art Exhibit Catalog. Alton, Ill.: Committee on Black Pioneers.

Graduates to be Honored at Union Baptist Church. Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, IL), June 3, 1924.

Junior Highs Will Graduate 129 Students.” Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, IL), June 2, 1920.

Negro Youth is Honor Student at High School.” Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, IL), April 15, 1924.

Opening a School in Carpentry.” Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, IL), October 9, 1914.

Two Incidents at Alton.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, MO), June 12, 1924.

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