PALATKA, Fla. – If you check out Visit Florida’s website, you’ll notice it states Palatka as being home to the sunshine state’s first accredited school for Black students. If you dig further, you’ll see the old Central Academy is filled with fascinating Putnam County history.
According to the Palatka Housing Authority, which now oversees the building, the current Central Academy School building was built in 1936, replacing the original building that was destroyed by fire. Then in 1971, the school was closed following desegregation. Then in 1998, the authority says it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. The Putnam County school district also confirmed to News4jax it used the building as a maintenance warehouse, and the property as a bus depot before selling it to the Housing Authority in 2009.
Years of decay has visibly added up, and there's almost nothing left of the roof.
But now, the building stands in ruins. Years of decay have visibly added up, and there’s almost nothing left of the roof. The building itself is surrounded by a fence, and parts of it are boarded up. Dr. Andrew McCrae and Bernice Johnson were Central Academy students in the 1960s.
“When we come through our community and we see the disrepair that it has fallen to, this is evident that we have been failed,” Dr. McCrae said. “As a student with a doctorate, I owe it to this because this is where I got my beginnings. And I got to walk and see it in this shape?”
For Johnson, the sight of some of her earliest memories is heartbreaking and says it leaves an impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.
“When I see this building like this, it brings tears, it brings sadness, and disbelief,” Johnson said. “That’s what it brings to me, and it hurts my heart.”
They, like many, want to see this property thrive once again. According to the Palatka Housing Authority’s president, Dr. Anthony Woods, it was one vote away from being demolished in 2006 as “...a result of its severe state of deterioration.” During our interview, Johnson provided News4jax with a copy of a resolution from the city of Palatka dated in 2006. The resolution formally stated the city opposed demolition and was signed by then-Mayor Karl Flagg.
But Dr. Woods says with restoring it, there’s a big roadblock. In a statement, he said:
“Efforts have been made to improve the building and the property it sits on by conducting structural and architectural studies to determine the feasibility of restoration, conducted studies of lead, asbestos, oil contamination, and completed conceptual design drawings reflecting a development plan. While these steps are very important in the restoration process, it is only the beginning. Ongoing attempts of obtaining adequate funding for the restoration of Historic Central Academy remains to be the greatest challenge.”
But for Dr. McCrae, the big question is-- why did it get to be like this in the first place? He says many are to blame, including former students like himself.
“We failed also because we stood around and allowed this to happen,” Dr. McCrae. “This didn’t happen today, it didn’t just happen yesterday, this happened down through the years.”
Even though it’s been years, Johnson and Dr. McCrae look back on good memories and those who guided them. He and Johnson showed us a yearbook from 1967. They recognized the many faces inside, including educators they credit with shaping their lives and this mission.
“They’re crying out to us, saying ‘we taught you to stand for something,’” Dr. McCrae. “And that’s why we’re here.”
Johnson also fears the current condition will only get worse. She’s pushing for action, and no more wasted years.
“If the school is restored, it will bring back a sense of pride in the community,” Johnson said. “It can be utilized for different programs to help our community.”
Dr. Woods also said in this statement:
“The proposed usage of Historic Central Academy includes a public charter school for grades K-5, establishing a historical and cultural museum, and recreational community center. The main objective is to promote a state of the art learning that lends to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), Politics, Law, and Entrepreneurship through Project-Based learning. The renovation of Historic Central Academy will increase access to services targeting minorities and the disabled, (i.e., medical support, employment information, education, career training, etc.). A portion of the restoration plan encompasses bringing the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), increasing access for disabled individuals.
The restoration of Historic Central Academy has the potential to be the stimulant this community needs, not just for students and educators, but for residents and all other stakeholders alike. With the appropriate funding and resources, Historic Central Academy can once again become a beacon of hope and pride in Putnam County, Florida. Most importantly, Historic Central Academy will continue to maintain its historical significance for years to come.”