Orange Park school that integrated in 19th century gets historical marker

ORANGE PARK, Fla. – While many city and county offices were closed for Presidents Day, the Orange Park Town Hall was packed for a history lesson. Known for its desegregation in the late 1800s, Orange Park Normal and Industrial School was remembered with a historical marker.

Monday's ceremony commemorated the Orange Park Normal and Industrial School, which stood where Town Hall sits now. The school opened in 1891 and was the only place in Florida where black and white students were taught in the same classroom. It was also known for training black teachers. Monday, parents, students and teachers of all races and backgrounds came together for a special presentation

"I didn't even know there was a school built here before. I thought it was just Town Hall," said Danielle Mills, an eighth-grader at Orange Park Junior High. "To just know more about history, it was a great experience."

Danielle and a few other students put together a Black History Month presentation and unveiled the historical marker.

The crowd cheered in remembrance of the school's push for integration, which was illegal at the time. The principal and at least five teachers were arrested and the school eventually closed its doors in 1913 -- not long after the KKK burned down the chapel, people claim.

"They had to be segregated all the time. It wasn't fair to anybody, they had to close down the school and they didn't have the right to education like we do now," Danielle said.

A piece of the original Normal and Industrial School that was dug up while they were constructing the Town Hall will remain on display in the lobby. 

Local teachers say they will use this as a tool to educate kids and adults outside the classroom.

"It makes it easier to tell that story, makes them have a reason to think it applies to them," said Cindy Cheatwood, a teacher at Orange Park Junior High. "(It) gives it relevance for them that I wouldn't be able to do with a normal lesson."

Cheatwood said that it also can serve as a point of pride for residents.

"Pride as a teacher and citizen of Orange Park, that Orange Park (did that) at a time when it was difficult to be a front-runner in the race against segregation," Cheatwood said.

​A gallery of artifacts and photos will be displayed at Town Hall for about a month.