Black history month
This Week in History
West Palm Beach
World War II
The end of a Delray Beach era came 25 years ago this week. It led to a downtown cultural jewel.
The 4-acre complex at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Swinton Boulevard now is called the Delray Beach Center for the Arts at Old School Square. It changed its name last fall.
“Old School” isn’t the half of it.
The complex holds not one, but three historic buildings, all of which predate the great 1928 hurricane. The Cornell Museum of Art and American Culture is in the former 1913 Delray Elementary building. The Crest Theatre is in the former 1925 high school building. And the Vintage Gymnasium dates to around 1925.
For nearly 75 years the complex was a center of culture and education, hosting church services, community meetings and band performances. But by the mid-1980s, it had become an eyesore.
The high school closed in 1950. When the elementary school graduated its final class on June 7, 1988, many advised just tearing it down.
The stained and crumbling school was a totem of despair. And the rest of downtown was a dark, depressed place with little business, something hard to imagine now that the avenue is a bustling entertainment mecca.
But starting in 1985, a small group, led by resident Frances Bourque, vice-chair of the city’s historical society, and Mayor Doak Campbell, made things start to happen.
The hard sell was made a bit easier when more than $2 million was included in a $21.5 million bond referendum that promised significant street, sidewalk and drainage improvements throughout the city. The measure passed in 1989. The closest vote, at 52 percent approval, came on the question that included money for Old School Square.
The city bought the property for $392,000 that year. The former elementary school opened in 1990 as the Cornell. The gym reopened in 1991 as a community events room. The former auditorium opened in 1993 as the Crest. The remainder of the $7 million renovation was finished by 1998.
Old School Square hosts 1,500 activities a year. The museum’s budget has grown from $230,000 in 1992 to $2.7 million in 2013.
“This is where the town grew up,” president and CEO Joe Gillie said last month.”We’ve come full circle. (And) not only did we save the old schools. We saved the character of this community.”
Flag raising at the then-new Delray Elementary in 1913. (Photo courtesy of the Delray Beach Center for the Arts at Old School Square)
Tags: buildings, Delray Beach, museums, schools
June 5, 1970: Forest Hill high school graduation 1970 (Palm Beach Post staff photo)
June 12, 1978: John I. Leonard High School commencement (Palm Beach Post staff file photo)
June 7, 1980: Atlantic High School graduates take their walk across the stage at the West Palm Beach Auditorium. (Palm Beach Post staff photo)
June 5, 1981: Boca High School seniors file into the West Palm Beach Auditorium for their graduation ceremony. (Palm Beach Post staff photo)
June 14, 1992: Wellington High School Assistant Principal Carlos Garcia searches Chris Zimmerman for contraband before the ceremony at the West Palm Beach Auditorium. All the students were searched , but a beach ball and two cans of silly string managed to escape detection. (Palm Beach Post staff photo)
Tags: photos, schools
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)
Tags: African Americans, Martin County, schools
Valentine’s Day isn’t the only thing around here that’s red. Palm Beach’s “Little Red Schoolhouse,” the only school in all of southeast Florida when it opened March 1, 1886, reopened this month after being closed for nearly a year.
Once again, the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach will host its “living history” program, which takes fourth-graders back in time for a mini-day in a one-room school of the 1890s.
The schoolhouse, in Phipps Ocean Park, was closed during a yearlong soil-remediation project in the park. The Foundation took advantage of the down time to renovate and update it.
When it opened, it was the only schoolhouse in what was then Dade County, which was a swath of scattered settlements stretching north to Stuart and covering an area the size of Massachusetts.
A county grant of $200 paid for lumber for the 22-by-40-foot building. Laborers donated time.
The Ladies Aid Society raised another $200 from the sale of embroidery and quilts to pay for furniture and supplies.
The first class had seven students ranging from 7 to 17 years old.
The teacher was Hattie Gale, from Kansas. She was all of 16, younger than some of her charges.
She was the daughter of the Rev. Elbridge Gale, a minister, educator and professor of horticulture, who retired to the area from Kansas in November 1884 and became one of the first to build a cabin on the west side of Lake Worth (the Intracoastal Waterway).
Hattie, who arrived in 1885, taught for only three months before the area hired a teacher for $100.
In 1901, the schoolhouse closed and a boat ferried the children to the new four-room school at Clematis Street and Poinsettia Avenue, now Dixie Highway, in West Palm Beach.
The original building was moved to Casa Bendita, the Palm Beach estate of John Phipps. It sat there for four decades, where it was used as a potting shed.
In 1960, shortly before Casa Bendita was razed, the schoolhouse was dismantled and moved to Phipps Ocean Park. In 1990, the Preservation Foundation restored the building to look like a one-room schoolhouse.
The building is closed to the public, except for the “living history” program.
The first schoolhouse (left) in Palm Beach County is shown in 1886 in Palm Beach. The first school teacher was 16-year-old Hattie Gale (in doorway). (Courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County)
Tags: buildings, Palm Beach, schools
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)
Tags: African Americans, Black history month, schools