Okahumpka Community Club Seeks to Preserve Historic Rosenwald School

OKAHUMPKA — The Okahumpka Community Club works to preserve an important historical monument: the Rosenwald school.

The club initiated the Rosenwald Schoolhouse Restoration Project to rebuild the old schoolhouse and use it as a historic site with educational and interpretive exhibits of historical figures. Plans also call for a new community center on the site, which will serve as a meeting space for visitors.

“The school is going to be completely restored, so it looks like it did when it was built,” said Chip D’Amico, Okahumpka Community Club board member and fundraising chair. “We want to make it as historically significant as possible because it’s going to be used to explain the history of Okahumpka.”

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“You Can’t Forget History”

The Rosenwald School in Okahumpka in 1930.

In the early 20th century, Booker T. Washington, in partnership with Sears President Julius Rosenwald, began a philanthropic effort to provide education for poor black children in Southern states. Between 1912 and 1932, they built over 5,300 schools in 15 states.

Okahumpka School was one of them. More than a third of children in the South have been educated in these schools.

“It’s an amazing thing,” D’Amico said. “The CEO of Sears spent his money building schools for black kids because they weren’t getting an education.”

When the Supreme Court declared segregation in schools unconstitutional in 1954, black children left Rosenwald schools and were integrated into white schools. Over the following decades, the majority of Rosenwald schools were either demolished or abandoned.

“This is one of 120 Rosenwald Schools that have been built in Florida and there are very few left,” D’Amico said.

After the building was used as a school, it was a community center until around 2002.

In 2002, the community center was to be redone and updated. The club was in the midst of these improvements when vandals broke in and destroyed the building.

“They ripped the new drywall out of the walls and ceilings. They had 10 computer stations for community use that were smashed all over the floor,” D’Amico said. “They were actually still there until about a year ago when me and several other members of the community club went there and cleaned it up.”

But in recent years there has been a renewed effort to restore the historic building.

“You can’t forget history. History is what made this country what it is. And I think that history is even more important today than it was then,” D’Amico said. “You’re talking to a retired white police sergeant, and it pisses me off to the core that people still aren’t treated the same in this country.”

Tell the whole story

D’Amico said the exhibit inside the renovated school wouldn’t shy away from the area’s history.

On July 16, 1949, a white couple, Willie Padgett and his wife, Norma, were returning from a ball when their car stalled in Okahumpka.

Willie would later tell officers that four black men stopped to help them, then attacked Willie and drove away with Norma. Norma told police she had been raped, but a doctor at the time said her injuries did not match those of someone who had been raped.

Word spread and the community focused its anger on Groveland, which had a large black population. Three black men – Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin – have been arrested.

Ernest Thomas was tracked down by a mob and killed.

The men later became known as the Groveland Four.

Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death, while Greenlee, who was 16 at the time of his sentencing, was sentenced to life in prison.

Sheriff Willis McCall, now an infamous figure in Lake County history, helped the men get away with it legally, and much worse.

The United States Supreme Court in 1951 overturned the convictions of Shepherd and Irvin, on the grounds that blacks had been wrongfully excluded from the jury.

When McCall was transporting Shepherd and Irvin from Florida State Prison to Lake County for a retrial, he claimed the men in handcuffs attacked him.

McCall shot them both. Shepherd was killed instantly but Irvin survived.

Greenlee was granted parole in 1962 and died in 2012. Irvin was granted parole in 1968 and died a year later.

In 2019 Governor Ron DeSantis pardoned the four, and late last year they were fully exonerated.

Okahumpka is also the birthplace of Florida civil rights leader Virgil D. Hawkins, whose Supreme Court battles from 1949 to 1958 desegregated the University of Florida. His family also provided the half-acre of land on which the historic school sits.

“He and his team single-handedly changed Florida’s story for higher education. Florida was not meeting US desegregation demands until he finally succeeded and pushed it. “D’Amico said. “We’re going to have exhibits in his honor and this story that’s very important to Florida.”

Recently, the Rosenwald School was put on the The National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The school also selected from a large number of applications as one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Properties in the State of Florida.

The Lake County Board of Commissioners provided a letter of support for the club’s efforts to restore the historic structure and add Rosenwald School to the National Register of Historic Places.

The project’s goal

The Rosenwald School in Okahumpka.

The Restoration Project was organized to restore the school so that it could be used as a historic site and a place for community enrichment.

The Rosenwald School is a two-room, one-story wood-frame building where a teacher taught up to four different grades at a time.

D’Amico hopes the restored school will serve as a venue for educational field trips.

“We hope they will send at least a class of fifth or sixth graders every year to come and see what it was like to be a student at that school back then – to see the difference in what ‘they have today and learn about the history,’ D’Amico said.

Inside the school there will be exhibits on the history of Rosenwald, Washington and Hawkins

There will also be a new community center with restrooms and meeting space for visitors, which will also be named the “Virgil Hawkins Community Center.”

“The new community center can be used for picnics, family reunions, fundraising events, barbecues – we will try to set it up as best we can for all the uses the community has. need,” D’Amico said.

This project is currently funded by two sources: Florida Department of State African American Cultural and Heritage Grant and the National Trust for Historic Preservations, African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Grants are used to help build and restore facilities, but funds are still needed to build major infrastructure.

A call for help

The Okahumpka Community Club is asking the community to help raise funds for important infrastructure to complete the project. This funding is not included in the grants that have been awarded.

“At this point, we’re not sure we have enough funding for the community center and all the infrastructure that we need,” D’Amico said.

County code will require the installation of driveways, parking lots and sidewalks. Landscaping, landscaped buffer zones along adjacent properties, pruning and removal of trees as required are also required.

Grant funding also does not cover items for display, including electronic programming and historic school furniture. All donations made will go directly to these purposes.

“The hope is that the entire project will be completed within the next two years,” D’Amico said.

Want to help?

To help support the Rosenwald School Restoration Project, visit the GoFundMe page at gofund.me/f215b65b.

The Okahumpka Community Club also seeks to collect stories, memorabilia, and stories involving the Rosenwald School and life in the rural south. For more information or to share your story, email [email protected]

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