Supporters trying to save Palatka’s historic black school, Adv22-23

September 22, 2007 4 min read

PALATKA, Fla. (AP) — If Central Academy were just about any other building, no one would object to it facing the demolition ball.

The tan-colored concrete block building wasn’t much to look at even before it closed 36 years ago and time, vandals and the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 have not been good to it. There are holes in its roof, its wooden floors are weakened and its windows are boarded up. Huge red and white sign on the sides and front of the building read, “No Trespassing. Unsafe Building.”

But Central Academy is no ordinary place — for decades, it was the only school that Putnam County’s black children could attend and it holds a special place for its alumni, which includes ministers, doctors, lawyers and educators. It was the state’s first accredited public black high school.

They are trying to raise $5 million to save and revitalize the 71-year-old building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. They want the building to house a museum, an after-school program and a cultural center.

“It’s more than merely a structure of brick and mortar, it’s a long standing pillar of achievement, inspiration and pride of the local community for a number of years,” said Duval County Judge James Ruth, who attended Central Academy in the late 60s. He credits its teachers with helping fuel his interest in the law and in competitive running, which led to him receiving a track scholarship to attend college.

“When I drive by the building, each time when I pass by, I stop and pause, somewhat akin to tipping my hat,” Ruth said.

When this Central Academy building opened in 1936 — replacing an 1888 structure that had burned down — Putnam County was segregated, just like the rest of Florida and the South.

Facilities for blacks and whites, while separate, were supposed to be equal — but try telling that to those who attended Central, which had students from first grade through high school. The students used secondhand books and supplies and the football team competed in surplus Army boots.

Alumni said they were told to persevere, no matter the hardships. Even after the Supreme Court ordered in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 that the nation’s schools had to be desegregated, Putnam County — like many other districts in the South — held out.

“Central Academy experienced secondhand books with first-class education and first-class educators and that to me has made a difference,” said Karl Flagg, the mayor of this town of 11,005, 50 miles southwest of Jacksonville. He was valedictorian of the sixth grade class in 1971, the year the school finally closed.

“The teachers refused to accept an excuse for not achieving or doing work. They expected hard work, dedication and a positive attitude,” said Ruth, who attended from first through fourth grades. “They said, ‘You can achieve. You can do whatever you put your heart into. You can do it.’”

And that’s the attitude the alumni have tried to bring to their preservation efforts.

The Putnam County School Board planned to tear down Central Academy, arguing in late 2006 that it was condemned, unsafe and had become a liability for the district. But supporters of the school rallied and formed the association, which is headed by Sheila McCoy, a 1968 graduate of Central Academy.

“It was one vote away from being demolished,” Flagg said.

So far, the group has raised about $200,000 from a state education grant. A $4 million grant was approved by the Legislature last spring, but it was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist. Anthony De Luise, a Crist spokesman, said a tight budget meant that “many worthwile projects” had to be shelved.

A temporary roof will soon be erected using $49,000 from the state grant and then efforts will be made to dry out the building, said John Nelson, executive director of the Palatka Housing Authority, which took over management of the project from the school board.

A recent visit to the school, which is surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, brought back memories to McCoy, Flagg and 40-year educator Erma Boyd Hines, who attended Central Acadent from 1937 to 1946, and taught at the school for a semester.

The memories include the front steps where, as youngsters, they stood for class pictures; the courtyard of the U-shaped school where graduation ceremonies were held; the playground which is now a school bus parking lot and the library.

Despite the uphill climb, supporters remain hopeful that the money will be found through foundations and other sources.

“We remain optimistic and prayerful,” Ruth said, adding that a number of people, including an architect in Gainesville, were donating their expertise.

“We are getting the players in place. We just need the money.”


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