JACKSONVILLE BEACH — Although there’s an understated elegance to its brick construction and long windows, the old schoolhouse is nothing fancy: a simple rectangle that once held four classrooms.
With links to a woman born into slavery who went on to teach children in her kitchen, it became known by several names: School #144, Jacksonville Beach Colored School and Jacksonville Beach Elementary.
For generations of Black residents at the Beaches, it became a distinct mark of pride, a centerpiece and social center for the community — as well as a refuge during Hurricane Dora in 1964.
In the days before desegregation, kids came from the streets around the school, a Black neighborhood known as the Hill, as well as from Atlantic Beach and Mayport. It even drew some country kids from the San Pablo area across the Ditch.
Earlier this week, in the first days of Black History Month, some of its former students and teachers gathered there once again, masked and distanced.
And they reminisced about the old school, which was saved from demolition after the community banded together to have it moved to a safe location six blocks away.
Former student Lillie Sullivan laughed. Over the years there was a lot work done on behalf of the old school — first to get money to move it, then to keep it going as a museum. That meant a lot of fundraising dinners.
“And when I say dinners, I don’t think there’s a chicken left, a fish in the sea,” Sullivan joked.
She’s 63 and was a student there through sixth grade, before she moved to Fletcher Junior High when desegregated schools came to Duval County during the 1969-1970 school year. She’s now executive director of the Rhoda L. Martin Cultural Heritage Center, a museum housed in the one-time school.
Rhoda L. Martin: From slave to church, school founder
It’s named after a remarkable woman who was born a slave in South Carolina. In 1928, with no public schools for Black students available at the Beaches, Martin turned her Jacksonville Beach home’s kitchen into a school.
More and more students came to her house as the population grew, and by 1939 the county put up a four-room brick building as a segregated school.
Earlier Martin had helped found St. Andrew African Methodist Episcopal Church. Services were conducted in her home on Shetter Avenue until a church building went up in 1912. “She used the oven as the altar, covered it in white, and that was what was used,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan has heard plenty of stories about Martin, from relatives and those who knew her.
“She had a love and a desire to help people. That shines through more than anything,” she said. “Not only that, she was a slave, so she was limited in her knowledge. But that didn’t stop her from helping others. She had a vision, and she worked to make sure that vision came to fruition.”
‘Like a home away from home’
Lawilda Bartley, 70, was a student at the school, and from 1977 to 1996 she taught at the by-now desegregated Jacksonville Beach Elementary. She was among those who led the effort to save the old four-room building.
“It was like home away from home,” she said, a place where you knew the teachers, many of whom were living in the community surrounding the school. Teachers did more than teach: They took students to plays, movie theaters and other cultural events, and knew if they were slipping or in trouble.
“We had teachers who really pushed us to be the best,” said Janet Demery, 71, who also went on to teach there. “They went beyond the textbooks to teach us. We were, you could say, a village. We looked out for each other.”
Their efforts paid off, said Kay Odom, 64, who went through fifth grade there. “We were great students,” she said flatly.
Hazel Martin, 78, started school at #144 in 1948 and years later became a longtime teacher at Atlantic Beach Elementary.
The Black community around the school was tight-knit, Martin said. “You couldn’t get away with anything. The person across the street, next door, down the street — they could tell you what to do, and parents didn’t mind.”
And she remembers a white man named Charles E. Young who was a regular patron of the school, bringing food to students and helping support the band. He even brought ponies by for students to ride, Martin recalls. That was a big day, she said, complete with Coca-Cola and hot dogs.
It was a good place to grow up, she and other one-time students said: Black businesses sprung up to support the neighborhood, and work was available at beach hotels and restaurants.
A haven in segregated times
It wasn’t all good, though. The ocean was just blocks away, but Blacks weren’t allowed in the water. “You could hear it roar at night, and you couldn’t go in it,” Martin said.
She recalls being in a group of about a dozen young Black people who in the early ‘60s took a swim in the ocean. She just wanted, she said, to experience what it was like.
That didn’t last long though. Police firmly escorted them out of the water and off the beach.
Percy Golden, 65, grew up in Atlantic Beach where he is now pastor at the Holy Church of the Living God Revival Center. Although books and facilities at segregated Jacksonville Beach Elementary were subpar compared to white schools, it was still a good place to learn.
“We had such great teachers we didn’t feel like we were missing anything, they poured so much into us,” he said.
He was on the school safety patrol and liked being able to stop traffic in front of the school. That led to a big adventure, an end-of-the-year trip with the patrol to Miami with a stop at Marineland during the time of “Flipper” mania. In Miami he learned to swim in a hotel pool, and he also saw Cassius Clay — he wasn’t yet Muhammad Ali — boxing during a training session.
The four-room schoolhouse, which by Golden’s time had grown some additions, was later used as part of segregated Jacksonville Beach Elementary. But in 1999 the beloved building was scheduled for demolition when the School Board planned to put a new school on the same site.
Fighting to save the school
As word spread, supporters of the school formed the Jacksonville Beach Elementary Preservation Fund. After much fundraising and red tape, the group was able to move it six blocks to 376 Fourth St. S. to land donated by Nadia and Chris Hionides.
The old brick schoolhouse had been saved. And, renamed after the woman who started teaching children in her kitchen, the Rhoda L. Martin Cultural Heritage Center became a museum, complete with recreated classroom, as well as a place for meetings, after-school programs and tutoring.
The old building had been moved in one piece, slowly and carefully. Many came out to watch that happen, even though the day was stormy and rainy.
Sullivan remembers this though: As soon as the old school was placed at its new site, the storm stopped — and the sky turned from gray to blue as the sun came out again.