A former racially-segregated school in Kokomo has stood for 100 years, and the building’s new owner intends to see it stand for much longer.
On Dec. 30, 2019, the Kokomo Community Development Corporation gave Douglass School, located at 1104 N. Bell St., to Embracing Hope of Howard County, a nonprofit arm of Second Missionary Baptist Church headed up by Pastor William Smith. Now, Smith said he’s excited to be able to play a role in preserving history.
“I’m excited because a lot of our history will now be preserved, and it will be a location, a place individuals can go for African American and other minority history,” Smith said.
The school was constructed in 1919 as part of then-Kokomo Center School Corporation, and news clippings showed that the community was excited about it. It was to be the city’s new “colored school,” which would serve as an upgrade to the existing school that most African American students attended.
What the public didn’t know though, until right before the opening of the school in September 1920, was that Douglass School would start segregation in Kokomo. While there was a school that was considered the “colored school” already, there were no laws saying blacks must attend that school or could not attend another.
Douglass School changed that.
Now, black students had to attend Douglass School and were not accepted at other schools.
According to history records, the superintendent of the school corporation at the time, C.V. Haworth, instructed principals at the other schools in the corporation not to accept enrollment from any black students. They were to be sent to Douglass.
There was pushback from the community. A news article from September 1920 reported that there had been “a few cases” of parents refusing to send their students to Douglass School. The main objection, according to the article, was that it was inconvenient, as some black children lived closer to other schools.
As a result of the pushback, the school’s board convened to discuss the issue but ultimately decided to “support Supt. Haworth in his plan.”
The day before the school opened, there were 111 black children in the city, and 90 had enrolled.
The school continued as a racially-segregated school until the mid-1950s when it merged with the all-white Willard School, located just blocks away. The school closed in 1968.
In more recent years, the school was owned by churches but remained vacant for more than a decade before it landed on the county’s tax sale. Last August, the city of Kokomo took possession of the building and received a $10,000 grant from Indiana Landmarks to restore the building.
The money was used to put a new roof on the building, and custom-made historically-accurate windows will be delivered later this month and be installed in March.
Smith said he’s had his eye on the building since 2015 when he was first introduced to it. At that time, Smith had come to Kokomo to interview for the pastor position at Second Missionary Baptist Church, and he was taken by the school and briefed on its history.
“I just thought it looked like it had just been abandoned, and it has so much history because it was the African American school for the community during the time of segregation. I just felt like a jewel like that needed to be preserved because in many communities those schools had been torn down or converted already into apartments or something like that,” Smith said. “It was my desire that it would be something to preserve history.”
Currently, Smith is unsure exactly how the building will be used, but he said he intends to make it into something the community wants and will support. He said he will have a feasibility study done to help better determine how to use it.
He does want it to be used at least in part as a museum to help preserve African American history, as well as other minority history in Howard County. He said he also would like to partner with Kokomo School Corporation, Indiana University Kokomo, and Ivy Tech Community College Kokomo Region and be able to have students visit Douglass school to learn about the city’s history.
And, he’d also like to partner with Carver Community Center and use a portion of the building for educational programs due to the rich history between the school and Carver. Officials at Douglass School were credited for Carver Community Center’s existence today.
Rev. Henry A. Perry served as the principal of Douglass School from 1927 to 1949, and he saw the athleticism coming from his students. But, they lacked places to practice and enjoy sports. Kokomo had a city pool, but blacks were not allowed to swim in it. They also were not allowed at the YMCA until finally the YMCA opened the pool to blacks on the days before the pool was going to be cleaned.
Perry had a vision for a center where black children could play that would be like the YMCA. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the school in 1940, Perry used the momentum to fund raise for the project, which would be named Carver Community Center after his good friend and teacher Dr. George Washington Carver.
The funds were raised successfully, and in 1947, Carver Community Center opened.
“It’s my hope that we would continue to have that partnership and have some mentoring programs because looking at Frederick Douglass, one of the statements that he makes is about it’s easier to build boys into men than to repair men,” Smith said. “It’s just important for me to be able to repair the lives of young people.”
To celebrate the 100th year since the opening of Douglass School, Smith is having a reunion for former students and teachers on Aug. 7 and 8 at Douglass School. More information on the reunion can be found on Facebook at “Douglass School, Kokomo Indiana.”
Donations also can be made to help preserve the history of the school by sending checks to PO Box 84, Kokomo 46903.