George Washington High School began as a two-room wooden schoolhouse located on the righthand side of the overpass bridge.
Sometime in the 1940s, it was relocated to its current site – nestled between the Apalachicola Northern Railroad tracks and Peters Street. Then it was rebuilt in concrete and expanded for the growing city’s needs, only to have pieces torn down in the decades that followed.
But in its iterations, the once segregated high school, which now serves as a community meeting place, has become a staple of the North Port St. Joe neighborhood that was built around it.
“Thinking about the history and the stories of the community, thinking about the connection with the sports history, thinking about Money Bayou and the African American Beach, thinking about music history and the clubs they had here, there’s a lot of history that reveals a really strong and vibrant community,” Cleary Larkin, the director of the Historical Preservation Program at the University of Florida, said.
Larkin is one of a group of researchers from the university who have been piecing together the school’s complex history over the past several years. In the near future, they hope to have the remaining structures put on the National Historical Register.
“I think the idea with this project and what everyone wants to see it, again, we have a strong vibrant community,” she said. “How can we support that with a community center on this site that has been so central to their history?”
By the time the school had settled at its current spot, the Apalachicola Northern Railroad had long divided the town in two – North and South, Black and white. This was a physical manifestation of the town’s racial divide, with institutions on either side holding to Plessy v. Ferguson’s maxim, "Separate but Equal.”
In 1970, Washington High was partially demolished – a symbolic gesture of desegregation in Port St. Joe and insurance that schools would remain desegregated.
“This is a part of the history of desegregation in Florida and across the South,” Larkin said. “And there are other schools across the South, African American schools, where the same thing happened. Desegregation was put into place in different communities at different times, and they would tear down a portion of the school to basically make desegregation happen. And what’s left is a historic remnant.”
Registering the school, Larkin said, would open it up for the possibility of large restoration. The space could be converted to serve a variety of the community’s wants and needs.
But the process takes time.
“I don’t think we know what will happen here yet. And that’s really up to the community to decide,” said Linda Stevenson, another professor working on the project.
“This is a two-year project. The first year is really focused on the historic research, the building documentation, the drawing, the conditions assessment. And then the second year, we’ll be working with the community in basically listening sessions. What do they want to see happen on this site?”
An integral part of the grant application is determining the site’s exact role in the history of the community.
Part of that process, said Kristine Ziedina, a doctoral student assisting with the project, is defining the site’s exact period of significance. It might be point of construction. It might be point of demolition.
In this case, Ziedina says it is difficult to define.
“This place was never resolved to be the end of significance,” she said. “Technically we have a time period of significance, which ended 50 years ago from today. But I spoke with a gentleman today, and this place was always open, so it was significant always.”
The group has been conducting oral interviews with former students and seeking assistance from the city government to iron it out, but the process is expected to take years.
Regardless, Larkin said the group is determined to continue with their efforts to fully document the building’s history and the stories of the community that built it.
“We’re at a paradigm shift, I think, right now,” she said, “a moment in preservation where we’re trying to expand narratives and have more inclusive history and really acknowledge what has happened in the past and be very honest and open and have dialogue about it.”
“Placing this building in the National Register is a big part of telling that story,” Larkin continued. “And you have to do that in order to keep moving forward, so I think it will be a really sort of productive part of the conversation about what happens next on this site.”
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