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Schoolhouse one of area’s first for black children

One of the more popular landmarks in Palm Beach County is the Little Red Schoolhouse, the first in southeast Florida (1886), which was restored and sits in Phipps Ocean Park in Palm Beach.

But Martin County has its own landmark: the New Monrovia One-Room Schoolhouse, believed to be the only remaining one on the Treasure Coast.

Built around 1930, the 25-by-30 wood-frame structure was one of the first schools built in Martin County to educate black children.

On March 9, county officials, former students and historians cut the ribbon on the newly-restored structure.

The schoolhouse is in what is now Port Salerno. Plats called it Salerno Colored School, but students remembered it as Mrs. Williams’ School, for Costella Hannibal Williams, who moved to the area in 1929 and taught at the school until around 1960.

Warmed by a pot-belly stove, their way lit by kerosene lamps, black children looked to Williams as a mother figure.

Those children include retired Indian River Community College administrator David “Doc” Anderson, the first black elected to the Martin County School Board. He served 32 years on the panel, including stints as its chairman.

Anderson was a student in first through fourth grades, 1946 to 1950.

He said the four grades shared the one room, and one teacher: Williams.

“She was something else. She was quite a person. I don’t know how she did it,” Anderson said.

Williams — described as the “Matriarch of New Monrovia” in the 2000 Palm Beach Post book Our Century — retired from Martin County Schools in 1975. According to the Stuart News, she died at 97 in Palm City on April 19, 2003.

The schoolhouse eventually closed and the county used the building as a community center, then closed that in 1998 after building a civic center next door that bore Williams’ name.

The schoolhouse fell into disrepair and was damaged by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004.

Martin County spent $115,000 to restore the schoolhouse; it received a roof, floor and ceiling, windows and doors, and a fresh coat of paint.

Three of the original walls were saved.

Inside, green chalkboards hang from the original locations on the wall, and replicas of the students’ original wooden desks, built by South Fork High School carpentry students, line the room.

And there’s even a potbelly stove.

Visitors view the interior of the renovated Monrovia One-Room Schoolhouse during its re-dedication March 9. The building, believed to be Martin County’s last surviving one-room schoolhouse, was one of the first schools built in the county for black children. (Photo courtesy Martin County)

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg April 18, 2013 at 11:07 am.

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Nathaniel J. Adams

Nathaniel J. Adams Park at 568 15th Street in West Palm Beach was named for the man who formed West Palm’s first Boy Scout troop for blacks. He died at age 73 in January 1982. The park was named in 1983.

When Nathaniel J. Adams went to an awards program of the Exchange Club of South West Palm Beach in April 1976, he expected to see his daughter presented with an award. Instead, Adams himself was given the group’s Book of Golden Deeds award for community service. A resident of West Palm Beach, Adams served 30 years with the Gulfstream Council for the boy Scouts and had been active in several other charitable and civic groups. (Palm Beach Post staff file photo)

Click on the images above to view larger versions.

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Posted in Flashback blog March 11, 2013 at 10:30 am.

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Stebbins helped black teachers get parity

This is Black History Month. More than one person over the years has wished for a time when we don’t need a special day to single out one ethnic group’s accomplishments. Until then, this column will endeavor to point out the long struggle of all minority groups — and to honor that struggle’s many heroes.

One of our most unsung heroes might well be Charles H. Stebbins, Jr. Here’s more from columns in 2004 and 2007:

His legacy was continued partly through the accomplishments of his niece, Freddie Lee Stebbins Jefferson, an educator, community leader and Palm Beach Post columnist who died at 71 in October 2007. And through Freddie’s husband, retired educator and activist James Julius “Jeff ” Jefferson, who died at 80 in 2011.

Charles Stebbins wanted to be paid the same as white teachers. But he never benefited from the victory he helped achieve. Long since fired from his teaching job, he was waiting tables in New York the day in 1941 when a federal judge’s ruling set a stunning precedent. It was a step toward the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

White teachers with five years of experience had received a $25 raise. Furious black counterparts, who got no raise, founded the Palm Beach County Teachers Association and about 85 percent of the county’s 115 black teachers joined.

The group brought in Thurgood Marshall, later the Supreme Court’s first black justice. They needed a name to put on the lawsuit against the county school board. Charles Stebbins volunteered.

The Arcadia native taught social studies at West Palm Beach’s Industrial High School until he was fired. A school board official offered him $500 and his job back to drop the case. His wife was ill — she would die in a year and a half — but he declined.

“He was blackballed throughout the state,” Freddie Jefferson said in 1999. “He was the troublemaker.” Also, the black union failed to honor a promise to pay him a year’s salary if he was fired.

Stebbins moved to New York, then served in the Navy, where he filed two discrimination suits. He worked 32 years for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, where he sued for promotions, but failed. He never returned to education, and died in 1991.

Charles Stebbins, Jr. (Palm Beach Post file photo)

Freddie Lee Stebbins Jefferson (Palm Beach Post file photo)

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg February 7, 2013 at 3:14 pm.

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Jim Crow in Palm Beach County

By Bill McGoun

Desegregation of Palm Beach County public schools began half a century ago and was completed 40 years ago. The attention given that issue may give the impression that Jim Crow racial segregation was all about schools.

It wasn’t. It was in fact a comprehensive system of separateness similar to that enforced in South Africa under apartheid. African-Americans were told where they could live, where they could work and at what jobs, and frequently where they could go.

With the passage of years, memories fade, while new generations who never lived under Jim Crow come of age. Some years back, an African-American man told me he never knew why the CSX railroad station in West Palm Beach had two waiting rooms.

In 1956 the Seaboard Air Line Railroad terminal in Miami had a separate waiting room for African-American travelers traveling within the state because state law at the time required segregation, while new federal rules forbade it. (Miami News file photo)

Some cities actually had laws delineating the African-American neighborhood and forbidding its residents from being outside its boundaries at night. A Miami Herald janitor had to carry a letter attesting to his employment that he could show to police if stopped for being in the “wrong” area after dark.

African-American physicians could practice only in the African-American neighborhood. There were even separate hospitals, though in fact West Palm Beach’s Pine Ridge Hospital was in later years part of St. Mary’s Hospital. Other black professionals were similarly constrained.

In Palm Beach County, the only beach open to African-Americans was on Singer Island, which then was largely vacant. Parks and golf courses similarly were off-limits, except for the invariably inferior parks in African-American neighborhoods.

In the construction trades, all skilled jobs were reserved for whites, with African-Americans relegated to laborer positions. Delivery trucks would have a white driver who handled the paperwork and an African-American assistant who did the heavy lifting.

West Palm Beach had a unique, and for its time progressive, system by which only African-Americans could open businesses in the African-American community, which in those days stretched from Clematis Street north to 23th Street between the two railroads.

“It was segregation, but it was in our favor and we didn’t kick,” longtime African-American merchant Carl Robinson once told me. In many cities, a lot of the businesses in African-American neighborhoods were owned by whites.

I grew up in Lake Worth, which then had few African-Americans, and the symbols of segregation such as water fountains and rest rooms marked “white” and “colored” were not in evidence. I recall first seeing such things in West Palm Beach, which always had had a substantial African-American population.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Lake Worth’s African-Americans all lived in the Osborne community. Until the Whispering Pines subdivision was built, the Osborne community was physically separate from the rest of the city. The Wall of Unity along Wingfield Street was originally built as a wall of separation.

Lake Worth had so few African-Americans then that there was no chance of one winning public office. Until 1947, West Palm Beach in effect disenfranchised African-Americans by selecting city candidates in an all-white caucus.

Today, with African-Americans represented in the professions throughout the community, and in government all the way up to the White House, it’s easy to forget what life was like within the memory of many still living. We should not forget. It is part of our heritage.

Bill McGoun is a retired editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post. He is the author of five history books, including Lake Worth High School: A History, Palm Beach County Schools: The First 100 Years, and Southeast Florida Pioneers, which tells the history of Palm Beach County, the Treasure Coast and the Lake Okeechobee region through the lives of noted individuals.

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Posted in Flashback blog December 17, 2012 at 2:47 pm.

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This week in history: Urban League of Palm Beach County formed

When a local Urban League chapter was proposed in 1971, Robert Moultrie of the Riviera Beach City Council said, “We need a group that can relate to everyone — where the black and white and poor and wealthy can work shoulder to shoulder.” When the chapter was officially formed on Sept. 26, 1972, Moultrie said, “It looks like we’ve finally got that group.”

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Posted in Flashback blog September 24, 2012 at 6:00 am.

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