An end of an era for Gainesville is coming down brick by brick as the old Booker T. Washington High School is being torn down for salvage value by the owner.
Pallets of the old red brick are stacked, waiting to be sold and delivered for use at a new location. But the memories linger.
In front of the weathered front door, stands a historical marker identifying the school built for the community’s black youth in 1886.
The marker states, “ In 1880, two years before the City of Gainesville created a public school system for all its children, Island Sparks, a young Mulatto, taught the black children of the city. In 1886, the city built a frame school building on this site for the community’s black youth. Originally known as the Gainesville Colored School, the school adopted the name Booker T. Washington sometime before 1927. The original two-story facility was replaced in 1939 with a red brick, WPA project structure. Desegregation in 1965-66 resulted in the closing of Booker T. Washington as a black institution.”
Gainesville High School (GHS) alumni, Don Williams, a member of the BTW historical society said that the old school was more than just a school for the black children of Gainesville.
“In 1965, the last class graduated from Booker T. Washington,” Williams said. “The school district moved the classes to the Newsome Dougherty Memorial High School in 1966.”
Williams said it was more than desegration of the black and white schools, it was the end of a community in which black students were suddenly in a world they did not know.
“Booker T. Washington was the center of our world, education wise and socially,” he said. “We knew the teachers and they knew us. They were part of our lives before, during and after school.”
“Desegregation may have opened the door for us to receive a better education but the system did not plan for it,” he said. “There were a lot of mixed feelings because we just did not know what to expect and our new teachers did not know us.”
Williams said that the class of 1966 went back to BTW for one month in the fall but when the GISD made the school an elementary school, senior students only had the option of attending the Gainesville High School.
“Our parents thought that we would have a better education so out of respect for our parents, we transferred to the new school.”
Williams said that some of the black teachers were left behind when the school was initially closed but eventually positions were found for most who wanted to continue teaching, although not always in their areas of expertise.
“Some teachers that had taught high school level suddenly found themselves teaching elementary students,” Williams said. “It was a difficult time for all of us and change is never easy.”
History of the school
Designed in 1886 by Gainesville appointed architect Josiah Kildow to plan a new school building for colored students, the city pad $450 for the land, spent $5,000 for constructing the spacious two-story building and raised an additional $5,000 for one year’s budget expenses to operate the so called “colored school,” one third of the three white schools’ budget.
Gainesville was one of a few Texas cities to have a high school for blacks with only 19 total in the state. However, there were only three teachers for the 186 black students.
The initial graduating class only had four seniors and the Gainesville Daily Hesperian (now Register) editorialized the event by stating, “This quartet will be the first colored graduates of the Gainesville school and will mark a noted epoch in the history of public education in the city, so far as the consideration of the colored people goes, that will forcibly remind the people of the North that the educational welfare of the colored children in Gainesville is carefully looked after by the city board of education.”
Some time after 1916, the name of the school was changed to Booker T. Washington honoring the African-American educator, author, orator and advisor who died in 1915.
A new brick facility replaced the frame school as part of Roosevelt's New Deal programs. The Works Progress Administration provided some funding for the new facility and the new BTW school opened its doors on the original location in 1939.
Reaching graduation was an arduous journey for many BTW students with many graduating classes only in single digits. The Class motto for the class of 1947 was a motivational one, “Not by brawn, by brain.”
In 1965, The Gainesville school board held a meeting and voted to adopt an integration plan which complied with the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Desegregation was at hand.
Williams said that In 1967, the Gainesville school board officially abolished the Booker T. Washington School district, combining he black district with the white district.
“This ended the era of formal, institutionalized racial segregation in Gainesville public schools,” he said.
As dismantling of the old school continues, dust settles around the historical marker still standing tall since it was dedicated to the City of Gainesville in 1986.
At a ceremony at the historical marker in 1997, handprints were impressed in the once wet cement.
The handprints are from both black and white teachers and staff who attended the dedication which also identified the end of the building’s educational use after 80 years.
The marker serves as a reminder for this important historical site for the state as well as for the city of Gainesville where black children received an education, once denied to them.
The handprints left behind tell a story of those who came together in unity, regardless of color. The faded impressions are neither black or white, they are the same.