By Brianna Bartlett
Jacksonville’s Stanton School opened its doors on April 10, 1869, as the first secondary school for black children in the state of Florida, offering students an education from basic grammar through a high school diploma.
“Prior to Stanton, if you were African-American, you might not have gone to school past the third grade,” said Ennis Davis, a local historian and urban planner.
“There was a lot of home school at just the grammar level.”
Before Stanton there were only three schools available in Jacksonville for blacks and they were taught only at a basic grammar level. Despite the need for schools to educate black residents, the pushback from white residents was often strong.
“In many cases sometimes the schools were burned down or the teachers were hurt or killed or intimidated to leave,” said Adonnica Toler, museum director at the Ritz Theatre and Museum.
Being given the opportunity to receive an education was a relatively new concept for blacks in Florida.
“It was against the law for enslaved African-Americans to know how to read and write,” Toler said speaking of pre-Civil War times, “and it was also frowned upon for free African-Americans to know how to read and write.”
Then in 1866, national legislation was passed that approved separate schools for blacks and whites.
Despite the new law, it still took three more years before Stanton School was opened.
To ensure it happened, The Colored Education Society of Jacksonville (Trustees of the Florida Institute) obtained a block of land south of Beaver Street from Ossian B. Hart, who later became a Florida governor. The society signed a 99-year lease with only one condition, that the land’s sole purposes were to teach blacks and to also train them to be teachers.
But “when it came to building schools after the Civil War, they weren’t ready to build them for black students,” Toler said. “Stanton came together because there was a group of African-Americans that really banded together to make it happen.”
Even from the start, the endeavor began encountering difficulties.
Stanton High School was first struck by fire in 1882; the school was rebuilt with insurance money. Then 19 years later in 1901, the fire that destroyed much of Downtown also demolished the school’s second structure.
Immediately after the fire, the school board replaced the burnt facility with a wooden temporary building. As part of a $1 million bond issue in 1915, the current brick building at 521 W. Ashley St. was constructed.
By mid-century, there were many more schools for blacks in Jacksonville. Many – including Stanton — struggled to maintain an adequate level of resources for its students.
“Schools on certain sides of town don’t get the same resources and funding as schools on the other side of town, it’s because it was a black school,” Davis said.
The school’s once-new brick building was beginning to show signs of aging but there were no resources available for upgrades.
In 1953, Stanton High School received $1.3 million to relocate to a new school building at 1149 W. 13th St. The new school was on a 24-acre plot, allowing space for 1,500 students.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ended segregated schools, and Stanton High School became a public school for both white and black students.
The previous school building was renamed Old Stanton; it was designated as a vocational school for black students until authorities deemed the building unsuitable for operating in 1971.
The Old Stanton High School was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
According to Joel McEachin, a retired senior historic preservation planner for the city of Jacksonville, the Old Stanton building has received numerous grants over the years to help with rehabilitating parts of the building. It has served multiple purposes ranging from a day-care to hosting GED courses.