ORANGE PARK – Surrounded by more than 120 attendees, students from Orange Park Junior High shared excerpts from essays they wrote about civil rights activists, praising the work of Harriet Tubman, Jackie Robinson and more on Monday as the Town of Orange Park unveiled its newest historical marker.
After the readings, officials pulled down a sheet and unveiled a new historical marker for the Orange Park Normal and Industrial School – the first national historical school marker in Clay County – something Council member Connie Thomas has been waiting for a year and a half.
“Learning that the school was right here on what is now the Town Hall property was stunning and as I started researching it, I learned that the school had been here for over 20 years yet nobody talked about,” Thomas said. “This school was a very big deal for the area, and for a very long time, and it deserves the recognition it’s getting today.”
In 1885, the Florida Constitution declared that schools were to be segregated, meaning black and white students were to attend different schools. In 1891, the American Missionary Association opened the private Orange Park Normal and Industrial School, which consisted of several buildings meant for classrooms, dormitories, workshops and more. Due to the success of this school, white children and black children went to school together, which was a first in the area.
The success of this would make way for its eventual failure, though, according to keynote speaker Richard Townsend.
“The success of this school actually led to its failure,” Townsend said. “This success caught the attention of William Sheats, the instigating factor in the demise of this school.”
As the Orange Park Normal and Industrial School continued in its success, word got around to both good and bad. The school grew to well over 100 students – with 35 of them being white – and 10 teachers. This growth not only brought even more students and faculty members to the school, but also Florida Superintendent of Public Instruction, William Sheats, who was described as a staunch segregation.
According to Townsend, Sheats stated that he would persecute and prosecute the Orange Park school out of existence and did so in 1913 with the passing of a law that prohibited any schools in Florida from teaching black and white students together. The American Missionary Association fought back against the State of Florida in court, and even won with a ruling from Judge R.M. Call, but it was too late. Losing the support of the area – in part forcefully, as the principal, five teachers and one pastor were indicted, all while the sheriff at the time arrested any parents who allowed their white children to attend the school – Orange Park Normal and Industrial School closed in 1917.
Despite its sad closure, the impact of the school lives on and this historical marker helps show that, according to Thomas.
“I think we are celebrating the teachers and the students in a very right way and I love that the town council has chosen to give it a very prominent place here at Town Hall,” Thomas said. “When you walk up here, you’re going to see the good our town is built on and the positivity stemming from it.”
Mayor Scott Land opened the dedication explaining the importance of this marker.
“Today, we celebrate our history by honoring the students, educators and community that joined together to create this proud legacy,” Land said.
After Land spoke officials read letters from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson(D-Florida) and Florida Rep. Travis Cummings(R-Fleming Island) to the audience, which filled the room and even spilled into the hallway at Town Hall.
“The school that once sat on this site was a precursor of the integrated schools that were to come in Florida’s future,” Nelson’s letter read. “It’s appropriate that we remember the important role it played in educating black teachers and a diverse student population but remembering these great achievements should happen every day, not just during [Black History Month], so future generations of Americans will learn the important lessons of the past.”
Currently, there are 471 historical markers nationwide that honor schools with 23 of them in Florida. The historical marking for the Orange Park Normal and Industrial School is the first school marker in Clay County. It stands over six feet tall and can be viewed outside the main entrance to Orange Park Town Hall.