Black history month
This Week in History
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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
Thanksgiving and football may mean watching the NFL on TV today, but Palm Beach County fans of a certain age will recall when THE Thanksgiving game was Palm Beach High vs. Lake Worth — a long-time rivalry played on the eve of Thanksgiving. The annual holiday game began in 1928 and continued through the 1960s, when the Forest Hill Falcons stood in for the Lake Worth Trojans.
The 1964 game has been described as the one of the most publicized football games in Palm Beach County history. Both teams — the Palm Beach Wildcats and the Forest Hill Falcons — were unbeaten. The preview story in The Palm Beach Post began, “Tonight’s the night when the hopes and dreams of an unbeaten-untied football season are wrapped up in 48 violent minutes of combat.”
The Palm Beach High football team as pictured in the Nov. 25, 1964 game preview story in The Palm Beach Post.
The Wildcats won that 1964 game 25-6.
The 1946 game between Palm Beach and Lake Worth drew what The Palm Beach Post called “the largest crowd in the history of Palm Beach County football,” with estimates ranging up to 10,000.
The cover art on the program from the 1946 game was by Lon Keller, an artist from Pennsylvania whose work was featured on high school and college football game-day programs from 1938-70.
The 1946 Palm Beach High football team, from the annual Thanksgiving game program.
The 1946 Lake Worth Trojans, as pictured in the annual Thanksgiving game program.
The center of the program featured the starting lineups for that night’s game and a guide to referee signals along the bottom.
The Lake Worth coaching staff from 1946. Despite the Trojans having no chance at the county championship that year, coach E.R. Goodell was quoted in the Palm Beach Post as saying, “We have no excuses. We’re banking on our two-team system to spell each other and make it a good game.”
Read more about the annual game in this 2009 Palm Beach Post Gametime story.
Tags: football, photos, schools
Recently we were looking at old schools in Palm Beach County and came across a story about Conniston Middle in West Palm Beach. Built in 1929, the complex was modernized in 2004.
What caught our eye was a Sept. 4, 1971, story about a term that might go over the heads of today’s generation:
The principal at Conniston — then Conniston Junior High — had let things go for the first week of classes that year, but he had decided it was time to crack down on the short shorts as “too provocative.”
He also told the deans of boys and girls — they were counselors of sorts — to have a heart-to-heart chat about dress policy, about which the school board then gave principals discretion.
A district spokesman said at the time the talk with the junior high students was “definitely not” a lecture on sex but rather about dress codes.
He said two parents had encouraged their children to wear the shorts and there had been a minor scene as students, presumed to be boys, reacted “positively.”
The principal later would lead the district. He was Tom Mills, superintendent from 1978 to 1991.
At Conniston, “we tried to have a dress code for our students,” Mills, now 77, recalled recently. “They couldn’t wear shorts. Girls and boys both. I think we allowed them to wear them if they were knee-high. The short shorts, no.”
As for parents, “We never had one call. I think they supported it,” Mills recalled.
He did remember that the dress code at nearby Forest Hill High prompted a lawsuit that forced the district to relax codes. Asked about today’s dress, Mills quipped, “I can only be responsible for my grandchildren. They all dress well.”
Thomas Mills spent 33 years working for the Palm Beach County School District, starting as a science teacher and serving as superintendent from 1978 to 1991. In 1971, as principal of then Conniston Junior High, he banned ‘hot pants’ at the school. (BILL INGRAM/Palm Beach Post Staff Photographer)
Correction: In our Feb. 2 column on the Okeechobee Battlefield, we said that, after the Second Seminole War, the Seminoles were scattered, with about 600 shipped west as part of the “Trail of Tears” and the rest vanishing into the Everglades. That prompted a call from Joe Crankshaw, longtime columnist for the Scripps-Howard newspapers and more a friend and mentor than a competitor. He correctly caught our goof: the Seminoles didn’t take part in the Trail of Tears.