To most people the name Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) evokes the memory of the former slave-turned-African American leader honored for his dedication to education and opportunity for African Americans.
To citizens of Middletown, Ohio, the name also prompts memories of the former Booker T. Washington School named in honor of the civil rights champion. Opened in September 1918 on South Main Street between 17th and 18th avenues (according to city directories from that period), the school operated until 1955, when it became the Edison School for the developmentally disabled. That school closed in 1971. The building no longer stands.
Interestingly, a world war and the local steel mill were largely responsible for the formation of Booker T. Washington School.
According to “A Brief History of the Middletown City School District 1800-1987” by former Middletown Schools Superintendent Norman M. Hayes, “...The Booker T. Washington School was an attempt to provide an even better education for the new wave of citizens coming from the south to work in the mills.”
Middletown Historian George Crout, writing in a Middletown Journal article on February 1, 1987, explained that World War I “brought enormous steel orders to the Middletown [Armco] plant just as many of its men were enlisting in the armed forces. A new supply of labor was needed, so Armco began to recruit workers in the South. It was during the war years that the greatest numbers of black workers came to the city. By 1920, 1,377 black people were listed in the census.”
Crout recounted how then-Armco President George M. Verity “insisted that the new black workmen have decent living arrangements” and ordered that quarters be constructed on Armco property. They consisted of “dormitories for the men, a dining room, kitchen and recreation hall. By 1918, the camp had 800 men,” Crout wrote.
According to Crout, toward the end of the war many of the black workers wished to remain on the job and asked Verity if their families could move to Middletown. A new subdivision known as Bon Veue with “neat, brick homes with plumbing were constructed on 17th and 18th avenues.
“The rapid increase of children in the area led Armco to build a new school, Booker T. Washington, on property the company owned along Main Street. It was a modern brick building with six classrooms and an auditorium seating 300 with a stage and two dressing rooms. It was turned over to the Middletown Board of Education for operation.”
Black students were not required to attend Booker T. Washington School, Crout continued. “They could enroll at South School if they desired.” Miss Ida Thompson was the first principal.
Crout reported that Armco did subsidize “certain aspects of [the school] program” by employing Miss Willie Mae Durant as the first public kindergarten teacher in the city as well as a director to develop community programs because Washington School was also to serve as a community center for the black population.
A Middletown Diary column in the Middletown Journal(date undetermined) reported that Armco also employed another “first” at the school -- a full-time music teacher by the name of L.W. Robbins.
A May 9, 1992, Middletown Journal article written by Middletown African-American historian Cheryl Wilson also recounted the history of Booker T. Washington School. She cited the cost of the school at $60,000 and listed its principals, teachers, teacher’s aide and custodian and maintenance person, “Mr. Cunningham.”
Interestingly, Mr. Charlie Cunningham was the subject of a Black History Month profile in the Middletown Journal on February 18, 1993. Prepared by Louie Cox and the local NAACP, it recounted: “When the doors flung open in September 1918 to greet the first class of students to attend Booker T. Washington School, Charlie Cunningham, custodian and maintenance man, greeted them, ringing his hand-held ‘cow bell’ signaling time for classes to begin.”
The profile continued : “In that first class was Maybelle Ferguson who currently resides in Springfield, Mass., and is the oldest living student who attended the school. Maybelle’s siblings, William “Baby T,” Jelina and John also attended Washington School as well as her children, Earl, Joyce and Phyllis…”
According to the profile, Mr. Cunningham continued to work at the building after it became Edison School. “Cunningham remained in his position at the school for more than 50 years. Ironically, he passed away in 1971, the same year the school finally closed.”
Former Superintendent Hayes wrote that after the closing of Edison in Spring 1971, students were transferred to other school buildings. The land and building reverted to Armco, the original donor.
Although its physical presence is gone, Booker T. Washington School and those who occupied its halls remain an important part of the history of Middletown.