Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles honoring black leaders in the history of the Wiregrass in honor of Black History Month.
“A Godly man of humility and integrity” is one way Dorothy Richardson remembers the man who she says “strongly impacted every part of my life.”
It was definitely the late Benjamin Franklin Garth who inspired Richardson, a longtime educator, former Enterprise Board of Education member and past president of the Coffee County Training-Coppinville High School Alumni Association founded by the man more generally known as Professor B.F. Garth.
With 42 years in the field of education and thousands of hours in service to his community, Garth died Oct. 3, 2010 at the age of 94.
A native of Decatur, Garth received his B.S. Degree and M.A. Education Degree from Alabama State College, which later became Alabama State University in Montgomery. He obtained his A.A. Certificate from the Fort Rucker Branch of Troy State University. Further studies were made at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa and Spring Hill College in Mobile.
In 1936 Garth married Gwendolyn A. Sharpley of Flint City. The couple had one daughter, the late Benita Jean Garth Sills.
Garth began his teaching career at Sanford Junior High School in Lee County from 1941 until 1943. From 1943 until 1948 he taught in Elba’s Mulberry Height High School, the all black school in the pre-integration days.
Richardson said that Gwendolyn Garth ultimately became like a second mother to her. B.F. Garth, Richardson said, was an encourager who inspired her to make her dream of college a reality. “When I told him that I didn’t have the means to go to college, he helped me find a work scholarship,” she said. “He put his finger right on my nose and asked me if I was just going to be one of those girls who just ran around on the streets.
“That’s just the way older people did you back then,” she added with a smile. “You can word this anyway you want but I was convinced from that moment that I was going to find a way to go to college and make something of myself.”
From 1948 until 1959 Garth served as principal of the Coffee County Training School, the all black school in those days of segregation, in Enterprise. The school became Coppinville High School and Garth remained principal of Coppinville High School from 1959 until 1969.
In 1960 the Coppinville High School moved into a new building on Ouida Street. Garth was influential in the expansion of the brick building for more classrooms, laboratory space and shop space.
Under the leadership of Garth and then Enterprise City Schools Superintendent Royce Snellgrove, the school was accredited by the Association of Schools and Colleges in 1963. New programs and departments were added in 1965 including reading, art, auto mechanics, special education, office practice and music appreciation.
In 1969 Coppinville High School became Coppinville Junior High School. In 1970 it became the city’s all-seventh grade school with Garth serving as its first principal until his retirement in 1983.
The “Coffee County Training-Coppinville High School Alumni Association 2018 Alumni Grand Reunion for Classes 1931-1970” program credits Garth for founding the alumni association as a means of “securing the records, keeping the name and the ‘spirit’ of Coffee County Training and Coppinville High School alive” after integration in 1969. He worked to locate members of each class from 1931 until 1969.
The alumni association paid tribute to Garth at a ceremony June 17, 1983 at the Enterprise Civic Center. Dr. C.C. Baker, then assistant state superintendent of Education, referred to an old Hindu proverb as he spoke about Garth. There are three things that cannot be hidden, Baker said—a man riding a camel, smoke and love. “Garth is a man who has stood tall for the things he upheld in the community,” Baker said. “Where there is smoke, there’s a fire and here is a man who came into this community a few years ago and built a fire.
“The love that this man has given out and received in return resides in the hearts of the people of this community and you can’t hide it,” Baker said at the tribute ceremony.
A February 2002 article in The Southeast Sun reports a “Roast and Toast” Appreciation Day for Garth held Jan. 31, 2002, attended by hundreds. Then-Enterprise Mayor Tim Alford declared the day as “B.F. Garth Day” to recognize Garth’s “untiring efforts, contributions and dedication to our community and its people.”
Garth was called, "one outstanding soldier," a "class act," who devoted his life to fighting for the young, the elderly and the poor during the “Roast and Toast.”
The program was sponsored by the Human Resource Development Corporation which Garth had served on as Board of Directors Chairman since 1974. HRDC Director Peggi James said Garth, a charter member of the community service program, was an inspirational and able leader. She said Garth was a man loved by all who met him and a man whose leadership had improved the lives of literally thousands.
Garth was also a charter member of Organized Community Action Program and served as its board chairman from 1970 to 1974. Former Dothan City Commissioner John Glanton, the first African American elected to the Dothan commission, was also a longtime member of HRDC. “This is one outstanding soldier,” Glanton said of Garth.
Thanking the more than 200 people at the tribute, Garth said he was surprised and humbled by the attention. “I feel good when I have a chance to help somebody,” he told the crowd.
Garth said it was the effort of many who made the HRDC and OCAP successful in helping those less fortunate. “If we don't share what we have, we've missed a good opportunity,” he said. “We have found out that God has enough for all of us.”
Those who “roasted and toasted” Garth talked about his “big heart,” as a teacher in Elba, a principal in the Enterprise School System and as a civic leader serving organizations such as the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Corporation and the Coffee County Board of Registrars.
Garth was also a charter member and board member of other organization including the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Corporation, the Southeast Alabama Regional Council on Aging and the Pea River Historical and Genealogical Society.
At the “Roast and Toast,” Lillie Ward of the Alabama State University Alumni Association, spoke of his "dynamic vision" and Ruth Smith, also a former student who went on to teach at Coppinville School when Garth was principal, called Garth “a giant among giants.”
The late Rev. V.J. Cole, pastor of St. Beulah Baptist Church at the time, also reminisced about Garth's influence on him as a student, saying Garth gave him the inspiration to go on to college. “He's not a critical man; he's always sought to seek the good in individuals,” Cole said.
Voncille Peavy recalled that Garth often told teachers and adults in the community to “watch what you do because a child may be following in your footsteps.”
Garth also served as a Deacon and Sunday school teacher at Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church for many years.
“If you earn a dime, save a nickel,” is what Richardson remembers Garth saying often. “He was a thrifty man. He was an ambassador of humility and integrity.”