Saturday celebration set for revered educator Elizabeth King’s 100th birthday

Former students of a revered Athens educator are planning a special birthday celebration for her.

 

Elizabeth G. King turns 100 next month, and to mark that occasion her former students organized a centennial celebration Saturday at 4 p.m. in Hill Chapel Baptist Church, 1692 W. Hancock Avenue, Athens.

Besides tributes, the celebration will also feature a special choir organized just for this event. King is still sometimes a choir soloist at Hill Chapel, the church she grew up in.

King was a for a quarter of a century a teacher and coach at Athens High and Industrial School — the first black public high school to be accredited in the state of Georgia — and later at the school’s successor, Burney-Harris High School. After Athens-Clarke County’s separate black and white school systems merged in 1970, she taught at Clarke Central High School before retiring in 1978.

Another accomplished Athens woman, Willa Deane Birchmore, wrote a poem for King’s remarkable career when King left the classroom in 1978.

“Give three cheers for Elizabeth King, for she can do most anything,” wrote Birchmore, a Clarke Central teaching colleague who died at the age on 97 in 2015.

King still lives on her own in the same Clarke County neighborhood she grew up in, not far from the old Burney-Harris High School, now part of the Clarke County School District’s H.T. Edwards complex on Dearing Extension.

The old Burney-Harris gym, now renovated and used by the Athens Boys & Girls Club, has borne her name since 2012.

A charter member of the Athens Athletic Hall of Fame, King coached generations of young basketball players in that gym, including a 1957-58 team that won a state championship, said Elizabeth Platt of Athens, a former student helping to organize Saturday’s tribute.

King’s teaching career spanned four decades.

She worked her way through Atlanta’s prestigious Spelman College, graduating in 1943, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president and World War II still raged in Europe and the Pacific.

Her first job was in Comer. She commuted home to Athens on the weekends.

When a spot came open at Athens High and Industrial, she moved back home in 1945.

Her teaching subjects included French, English and a little science, but mainly history and social science, she said.

At 99 and counting, she’s been witness to history that most of us know only from texts and images.

When she was born in 1918, World War I had not yet ended. Woodrow Wilson was president, the first of 18 men who’ve occupied the White House in her life.

King was a child and young adult in the Great Depression and World War II, and lived through the long Civil Rights Movement and the end of legal racial segregation in the United States. She’s seen great transformations unfold such as the emergence of the automobile age, the widespread adoption of electricity and indoor plumbing in Georgia, television, the migration of Americans from rural areas and farms to cities, the first nuclear weapons, space satellites and the Internet.

“I’m proud that I was able to get an education so I could take care of myself and my mother,” King said.

It’s not King’s long life that former students like Platt speak of so much as the way she’s lived her life and the lessons she taught, such as self-respect and respect for others, and learning to do the things you need to do to accomplish goals.

King never raised her voice, because she didn’t need to, Platt recalled.

“She did so much for us when I was in high school,” Platt said. “She has the sweetest spirit of anybody I’ve ever known.”

 

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