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.
Nathaniel A. Banks Elementary School was located at 800 W. Dye Street. It was named for Nathaniel A. “N.A.” Banks, the fourth principal of Lincoln High School. The school opened in September 1912 and was located in the South End community. Banks served as the principal at Lincoln from September 1898 until May 1907.
Banks was born on Dec. 26, 1854 in Texas. He led the effort to hold the first Colored Summer Normal School in Palestine. It was held at Lincoln High School every summer from 1899 until 1911.
His leadership of the Normal School during his tenure at Lincoln created a tremendous opportunity for many African-American teachers. This summer normal school prepared potential teachers from the surrounding 10-county area for the state exam and Teachers Certification. There would be 300 to 500 people at this school each summer. By 1921, the examination process had ended and all teaching certificates were to be based on college work.
N.A. Banks died on Feb. 7, 1930 in Titus County, Texas.
The Banks School building was a two-story brick structure that contained four classrooms. When it opened, it became the first elementary school for African-Americans located south of the Illinois & Great Northern railroad tracks.
Prior to its opening, Douglass Elementary in the eastern portion of town and Washington Elementary in the west were the only elementary schools for blacks in Palestine. The Palestine School Board filed a protest in 1912 against the Palestine Board of City Commissioners for funding the building of Banks School. It led to many years of turmoil and struggles between the School Board and the City of Palestine City Commissioners, who controlled the finances at that point in history.
Four well-known teachers taught several generations of families from Palestine’s South End community. The first principal, John Anthony “J.A.B.” Strain, worked in the educational field for 48 years. He served as the principal and as a teacher at Banks School from the first day that the school opened in 1912, until his retirement on May 10, 1950.
Alma Z. Johnson-Stein was the first teacher in 1912 and she retired in May 1955, with 48 years of educational service.
Lenora Howard-Robinson came to the school in September 1913 and remained until March 1950, with 44 years of educational service.
Louise Scott-Updack came to Banks School in September 1919 and remained until May 1955, with 41 years of educational service. From 1912 until May 1949 (a period of 37 years), these were the only teachers that taught at Banks School.
In September 1949, four more rooms were added to the school when portable buildings were moved to the campus to accommodate the increase in students. The teaching staff was increased, and the following four teachers were added: Mable Willis-Johnson, Hazel Brown-Evans, Emma Patton-McGough and Zenobia Hall-Williams.
The additional teachers helped to expand the grade levels from grades 1-2-3 only, as grades 4 and 5 were added.
Lenora Robinson died on March 8, 1950 and Zella Wilson-Watkins worked in her place from March 10 to May 31, 1950.
Following the retirement of J.A.B. Strain in May 1950, Ecomet Burley became the principal in September 1950. Ruthye Henry-Jackson replaced Zella Watkins and Ella Rivers-Lee replaced Emma McGough in the fall 1951. Irma Updack-Hutchinson came to Banks in 1952.
When A. M. Story High School opened in the fall of 1953, it allowed for the vacated rooms at the old Lincoln High School to be used for the fourth and fifth grade students at Banks School. Ella Lee and Irma Hutchinson were transferred to Douglass; Ruthye Jackson, Mable Johnson and Hazel Brown-Evans were moved to Lincoln and the portable buildings were removed.
Banks Elementary School returned to its original first-, second- and third-grade format. Freddie Clarice Jones-Andy joined the Banks staff in the fall 1953.
Alma Stein and Louise Updack retired in 1955. Jimmie Gray-Beal and Miriam Lenora Reed-Williams joined the staff in the fall of 1955. The principal, Ecomet Burley resigned in May 1964 and accepted a principalship in Lufkin. He was replaced by Jimmie Cummings Sr. in September 1964.
Beal, Williams and Andy remained at Banks School until it was closed by the Palestine School District at the May 17, 1965 school board meeting. The three teachers were transferred to Lincoln School.
Banks Elementary School served the South End community for 53 years.
The school reopened on March 3, 1966 as the Palestine Kindergarten Center, under the Title I federally-funded Headstart program. It was fully integrated. Pre-schoolers attended this school under the principalship of Jimmie Cummings. His staff was Rosa Myers, Nelwyn Phillips, Alice Slack and Jewel Slayton as the teachers. Jean Burris served as the teacher’s aide/secretary.
The building was used for five more years (September 1966-May 1971). It was sold in 1979 to Jonathan Deckard. The building was torn down in the early 1980s.
In 2010, there are three former Banks School faculty members still living: teachers Miriam Lenora Reed-Williams and Ruthye Henry-Jackson, and former Banks principal Jimmie Cummings Sr.
Douglass Elementary School and Banks Elementary School have a rich educational and cultural history that is significant to the local community and throughout the city. Being the only public school in Old Town and the South End communities, every child who attended these schools received their early educational foundation and childhood development.
The schools bridged the social and cultural opportunities for families and the communities as a whole. The schools also provided a stable environment where strong morals and values were taught that were needed to survive during such an unstable period in time.
The project historians for Douglass School were Bobbye Russell Myers, Mildred Thompson Smith and Reginald Browne Jr. The historians for Banks School were Mildred Thompson Smith and Reginald Browne Jr. They were strongly supported and encouraged by Jimmy Odom, marker chairman of the Anderson County Historical Commission.
Information provided by Reginald Browne Jr.
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