Spotlight On: Bessemer Academy
Hometown: Bessemer, Alabama
Group: AISA AAA
By Ryan Rohde
After opening its doors in 1970, Bessemer Academy was just one of the many new private schools across Alabama designed for white students who wanted to segregate from black students.
After all, the town of Bessemer hails just 10 miles southwest of Birmingham, where racism was ever-present during that period.
Fast-forward almost thirty years to 1997 and the town of Bessemer had changed. The steel industry was gone, the formerly majority caucasian town was now 70 percent black, and Bessemer Academy was struggling to keep its head above water.
With more and more whites leaving Bessemer, and enrollment plummeting at the school, academy officials needed to make a change in order for the school to get back in good standing with the community.
Ultimately, they decided the best way to make a difference was to build a football powerhouse.
“A great debate team is not going to bring in students. But a great football team will," said Ben Allison, a former member of Bessemer's board of directors, in a 2005 New Orleans Times-Picayune article by Josh Peter.
The plan the school followed was simple. First, the initial step in building a formidable, respectable program was to hire a new coach.
Bessemer was not known for its football prowess, so there weren’t any established coach knocking on the door. Soon, however, the school decided to hire Mark Freeman, a car salesman and local Pee-Wee football coach.
Next, Freeman and the school understood that in order to build a quality team, they would need the best athletes, black or white. And this was going to be no easy task at a school with an openly racist past and inclusion in the Alabama Independent School Association, a league formed for teams that wouldn’t play against teams with black players.
Meanwhile, Freeman’s first year at Bessemer resulted in a 4-7 campaign, while the second season showed marked improvement by going 6-4. Clearly, the team was improving, but there was still something missing.
Then, LaRon Yow enrolled at Bessemer during the ’00-‘01 school year. His mother sent him to Bessemer because she was worried about the learning environment at Jess Lanier, the town’s only public high school.
Yow was the team’s only black player that season. He started out playing receiver, but Freeman moved him to defensive line and watched the talented athlete finish his senior year with 19 sacks.
Additionally, Freeman also raised eyebrows when he hired a black assistant coach without the school board’s approval. Roderick Foster was a standout player at Alabama-Birmingham and the school’s first black employee outside of the maintenance or janitorial staff.
In the Times-Picayune article by Peter, Foster said he took the job to “open the doors to the community of Bessemer and to whoever thought it was a white school.”
Other black players followed in Yow’s footsteps. By 2001, the Rebels went 9-2 and made reached the AISA state championship before falling to Monroe Academy. The following season, Bessemer went undefeated while winning the school’s first championship.
Today, Bessemer’s enrollment today stands at almost 500 students, 43 of them being black and 12 of them members of the football team. After clearing that hurdle in ’02, the Rebels also won state championships in ‘04, ‘06 and ‘07.
And so while Freeman no longer coaches at Bessemer, the former head coach was certainly a vital part of the school’s success and has clearly left his mark on Alabama high school football history.
Indeed, Bessemer succeeded where other Alabama private schools did not over the years.
They learned acceptance and inclusion, and it has made all the difference in the world.
Next up: October 10 vs. Morgan Academy (State PR: 55.39, Rank: 37).