Two former school sites in Palestine will receive official Texas Historical Markers on Saturday.
The Frederick Douglass Elementary School marker dedication ceremony will be at 10 a.m. at 1405 Calhoun St. The Nathaniel A. Banks Elementary School ceremony will be held at noon at 800 W. Dye St. at South Jackson Street.
The Texas Historical Commission has recognized Frederick Douglass Elementary School and Nathaniel A. Banks Elementary School as significant parts of Texas history by awarding Official Texas Historical Markers at the two former school sites. The designation honors the two schools as important educational parts of local history.
Frederick Douglass School, commonly called “Douglass School,” was located in the Old Town community of Palestine at 1405 Calhoun St. The land for the First Ward Colored School was purchased by the Methodist Church from D.A. Calhoun on Sept. 25, 1874 for the price of $75. The school opened in 1875. It was referred to as the Old Town School in its early years.
A ward system began in Palestine in the early 1870s and the City of Palestine designated it as the First Ward Colored School. The ward system was developed by the city for its urban development and as political voting boundaries.
Douglass School — 1920
The City of Palestine commissioners controlled the finances of the school district from the 1870s until the 1930s. The Palestine Public Schools had their beginning soon after the railroad shops were located in Palestine in 1880. Many of the shop workmen had been imported from places where they had school advantages for their children, and they complained that in Palestine there were no public schools.
It is believed that the original school building was first moved or built at the Calhoun location. In 1888, the Palestine school district began to pay the “colored teachers” a monthly salary and First Ward School for Coloreds was staffed with James M. McMeans as the first principal. McMeans also had the title of Assistant Superintendent/Supervisor of the Colored Schools. The “colored” school building and the desks were put up for sell by the school board in April 1889. In 1889, the building was replaced by a $2,000 frame building. The salaries for colored teachers were set at $55 per month in 1888. The teachers and principals of colored schools received visits by the Palestine Public Schools superintendent twice a week to ensure that the teachers were getting to work on time and that the students were being taught.
The death of Douglass would have a profound affect on the Old Town community, particularly the educators of First Ward School for Coloreds. Douglass was considered to be one of the most influential figures in United States history and African-American history. He had been taught to read by the wife of a slave owner and became an abolitionist, lecturer for the Anti-Slavery Society, and a trusted advisor to President Abraham Lincoln. He was a newspaper editor, political candidate, statesman, and author. Most significantly, he was a proponent of equal rights and justice for all, including women.
Douglass believed that education was the key for African-Americans to improve their lives. For this reason, he was an early advocate for the desegregation of schools. He called for court action to open all schools to all children. He stated that inclusion within the educational system was the most pressing need for African-Americans.
On February 20, 1895, Douglass died of a massive heart attack, after attending a National Council of Women meeting in Washington, D.C. During a Feb. 14, 1898 meeting, the Palestine School Board changed the school’s name from First Ward School for Coloreds to Frederick Douglass Elementary School in recognition of Douglass.
The classes were held in a wood-frame building located on elevated land having a lower-graded level on the west side that was used for a playground. The framed building was destroyed by fire in 1912, and the classes were held at Mt. Vernon Methodist Church on Calhoun Street, which is included in the church’s documented history. The school was a neighborhood school and it was close enough for the children in Old Town to walk to school each day. The school housed the first through sixth grades, offered the basic academic curriculum, and adopted an approach that would encourage good moral values. A daily schedule was prepared by the teacher and approved by the principal.
Instructions were accomplished through the use of old textbooks, charts, maps, newspaper and magazine resources, and individual instruction. Achievement tests were also used to gauge the students’ learning ability. The educational goals of the school were reaffirmed through the relationships established between teacher and parent.
Over the course of the school’s history, three generations of the Freeman family served as principals at Douglass School, including William Freeman; William’s son, Byron Freeman; and Byron’s son, Jack Freeman. The principals who served at the school were James M. McMeans (1889-1891), Alex H. Vincent (1891-1893), James M. McMeans (1893-January 1901), William Freeman (January 1901-1909), William T. (W. T.) Swanson (1909-1923), Charles E. Williamson (1923-1924), John D. (J. D.) Nelson (1924-1927), Byron Freeman (1927-1942), Emma Patton-McGough (1942-1944), Byron Freeman (1944-1957) and Jack Freeman (1957-1967).
Jurlee Sims-Lee and Alex Vincent served as the first teachers in 1889-1891. Other teachers at Douglass School were Ella Mae Smith (1891-1894), Ellen Ricks (1891-1896), Martha Rodgers-Thompson (1894-1897), Bella Cole (1896-1897), Mamie McClellan (1897-1898), Julia Dudley-McClellan (1897-1898), (1899-1903), Jewel Lawrence (1898-1914), Sarah Griggs (1898-1899), George T. (G. T.) Robinson (1908 -1909), Birdie J. Massey (1909-1915), Estella Jefferson-Neely (1915-1923), Emma Patton-McGough (1915-1923), (1927-1950), Maymie Massey-McGruder (1923-1927), Zenobia Hall-Williams (1923-1944), Dowilder Stewart-Gregory (1935-1942), Silverleen McKenzie-Young (1942-1948), Espanola Washington-Reagan (1943-1965), Jack Freeman (1949-1953), Freddie Clarice Jones-Tims (1951-1953), Irma J. Updack-Hutchinson (1953-1966), Ella J. Lee (1953-1955), (1957-1963), Mamie E. Williams (1955-1957) and Jewel L. Slayton (1963-1967). Dorothy Woodard-Deckard served as the Teacher’s Aide/Secretary from 1963-1967.
Silverleen McKinzie-Young is the only former Douglass School teacher still living in 2010.
Hazel Gardner-Hollis, the school district’s visiting teacher and curriculum coordinator for many years, was very instrumental in getting young teachers started at the African-American schools in the city.
Due to desegregation guidelines, it was announced at the May 1967 Palestine Independent School Board meeting that Douglass School would be permanently closed at the end of the 1966-67 school year.
The principal, Jack Freeman, was transferred to Lincoln Elementary School as the principal. The two teachers were reassigned; Jewel Slayton was assigned to the Banks Kindergarten Center, and Irma Hutchinson was assigned to Washington Elementary School. The students were assigned to Reagan, Sam Houston, and Lamar Schools for the 1967-68 school year. The school board put the school building and the site up for sale at the June 1967 board meeting.
For more than 90 years, Douglass School and its principals, teachers, assistants, and organizations had a significant educational, social, and cultural impact on the students, their families, and on the development of the community. The school board sold the property to J. H. Farris in February 1968. For the next few years, the school was used for various small businesses (night club, café, etc.). The building was torn down in the early 1980s. In 2008, it was sold to Justice of the Peace Carl Davis.