KOKOMO, Ind. – An Indiana University Kokomo history professor played a role in earning a place on the National Register of Historic Places for a former segregated elementary school.
Sarah Heath, associate professor of history, provided guidance and expertise to Rev. Dr. William J. Smith Jr. as he gathered historical information and filled out the application for Kokomo’s Douglass School to be placed on the national and state registries.
“This is a chance where I can do exactly what I was trained to do, and for such an important project,” said Heath, who has researched and published extensively on the Civil Rights movement and school desegregation.
Douglass School, 1104 North Bell Street, Kokomo, received federal designation February 9, 2022, and state recognition in 2021.
Heath, who has served since 2019 on the steering team for Embracing Hope for Howard County, the nonprofit organization formed to restore the building, said being on the registry cements the school’s place in a larger story.
“Douglass School figured prominently in Kokomo’s Black community at that time, but it also was part of a bigger nationwide process that struggled over how best to desegregate schools,” she said.
In addition to assisting with the registry application, Heath continues to lead an oral history project, listening to and recording the stories of those who attended the school, which opened in 1920. At that time, all Black children of elementary school age were required to enroll there.
She plans to publish an article in an academic journal after completing interviews, to share a local case study about school segregation.
Heath’s process to interview people connected to the school has been slow because of restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, she’s talked to nearly 20 people so far, including multiple generations of some families.
“Everyone agrees the discipline was very strict, and that the neighborhood was redlined,” she said, referring to the practice of refusing to provide mortgages, insurance or other services in areas deemed a poor economic risk, especially when the residents were non-white.
There were positive memories as well, especially of the Black teachers who lived in the community.
“Uniformly, the assessment of teachers was so positive,” she said. “They saw their teachers in their community and their churches. They had to show them they were going to succeed and do well. It became this extended family. If you got in trouble at school, before you even got home, your parents already knew what had happened.”
Smith, pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church, initiated the project soon after arriving in Kokomo in July 2015. He appreciates Heath’s leadership in conducting the oral history interviews, and encourages his congregants who have ties to the school to participate.
“We’re hearing these stories we didn’t know, and preserving them for the future,” he said. “It tells us stories of people, a well-rounded history, even of some painful situations we’ve experienced in our community. It helps us understand the place, and why there are a significant number of minorities who live in this part of the community.”
His goal is to take what was meant to segregate Black people from the rest of the city, and restore it as a museum and cultural center, to celebrate their achievements and contributions.
“It’s an opportunity for us to again learn history,” he continued. “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you’ll never know where you’re going. We need to know the stories of those who have gone before us, to help us understand where we are going, to understand more about the place and connection.”
Douglass School merged with the all-white Willard School in the 1950s. It closed in 1968, after a lawsuit by the Kokomo NAACP about school placement in the city, and a decision by a U.S. district judge. It was an employment center and nursing school in the 1960s and 1970s, and then sat vacant for many years, and fell into disrepair. The city partnered with Indiana Landmarks to restore the building and transfer it to Embracing Hope of Howard County.
The organization is accepting donations of items from the school, such as yearbooks, pictures, newspaper clippings, athletic uniforms, and furnishings, to create a display for the planned museum. Smith tentatively plans for the first phase of construction to be completed in August, with the final project done in 2023.
Heath previously worked for the National Park Service, writing the justification for placing a school involved in the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case on the national registry. That case ended school segregation.