KOKOMO, Indiana – A history professor at Indiana University at Kokomo was instrumental in getting a former segregated elementary school listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Sarah Heath, Associate Professor of History, provided advice and expertise to the Reverend Dr. William J. Smith Jr. as he gathered historical information and completed the Douglass School of Kokomo’s Application for Records national and state.
“It’s a chance where I can do exactly what I was trained to do, and for such an important project,” said Heath, who has researched and published extensively on the civil rights movement and school desegregation. .
Douglass School, 1104 North Bell Street, Kokomo, received federal designation on February 9, 2022 and state recognition in 2021.
Heath, who since 2019 has been on the leadership team of Embracing Hope for Howard County, the nonprofit created to restore the building, said being on the registry cements the place of the school in a larger story.
“Douglas School figured prominently in the black community of Kokomo at this time, but it was also part of a larger national process that wrestled with how best to desegregate schools,” he said. she stated.
As well as assisting with register enforcement, Heath continues to run an oral history project, listening to and recording the stories of those who attended the school, which opened in 1920. At this time, all elementary school-aged black children had to enroll.
She plans to publish an article in an academic journal after conducting interviews, to share a local case study on school segregation.
Heath’s process for interviewing people connected to the school has been slow due to restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, she has spoken to almost 20 people so far, including several generations of some families.
“Everyone agrees that the discipline was very strict and the neighborhood was cordoned off,” she said, referring to the practice of refusing to provide mortgages, insurance or other services in areas deemed at low economic risk, especially when the residents were non-white. .
There were also positive memories, especially of black teachers who lived in the community.
“Uniformly, the teacher evaluation was so positive,” she said. “They saw their teachers in their community and their churches. They had to show them that they were going to succeed and do well. It became this extended family. If you got into trouble at school, before you even got home, your parents already knew what happened.
Smith, pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church, started the project shortly after arriving in Kokomo in July 2015. He appreciates Heath’s leadership in conducting oral history interviews and encourages his congregants who have ties to the school to participate.
“We hear those stories that we didn’t know and we preserve them for the future,” he said. “He tells us stories of people, a full story, even painful situations that we have experienced in our community. It helps us to understand the place and why there are a significant number of minorities living in this part of the community. »
His goal is to take what was supposed to separate black people from the rest of the city and restore it as a museum and cultural center, to celebrate their achievements and contributions.
“This is an opportunity for us to learn history again,” he continued. “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you’ll never know where you’re going. We need to know the stories of those who came before us, to help us understand where we are going, to better understand place and connection.
Douglass School merged with the all-white Willard School in the 1950s. It closed in 1968, after a lawsuit by the Kokomo NAACP regarding school placement in the city and a ruling by a U.S. District Judge. It was a job center and nursing school in the 1960s and 1970s, then it sat vacant for many years and fell into disrepair. The city partnered with Indiana Landmarks to restore the building and transfer it to Embracing Hope of Howard County.
The organization is accepting donations of school items, such as yearbooks, photos, newspaper clippings, sports uniforms, and furniture, to create an exhibit for the planned museum. Smith tentatively expects the first phase of construction to be completed in August, with the final project to be completed in 2023.
Heath previously worked for the National Park Service, writing the rationale for placing a school involved in the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court case on the National Register. This case ended school segregation.
Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.