How one couple fought to keep a Black American hero’s name alive in Putnam County

Leo and Shirley Grainger pushed to name an Interlachen school after Medal of Honor recipient Robert H. Jenkins Jr.

Marine Corps Private 1st Class Robert Jenkins Jr. poses with bands of ammunition during his deployment to Vietnam. (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Facebook)

PUTNAM COUNTY, Fla. – When the Putnam County School District revealed a plan to close multiple schools in order to consolidate and build new ones, one school that was set to close was Robert H. Jenkins Jr. Middle School.

The prospect of the school closing immediately caught the attention of Leo and Shirley Grainger. The Graingers made it their life’s work to honor Jenkins, a Medal of Honor recipient from Interlachen.

Jenkins graduated from Palatka Central Academy, an all-Black high school, in 1967. He lived close to Leo Grainger when the two were growing up.

In 1969, while serving in the Vietnam War, Jenkins and another private first class, Fred Ostrom, were fighting off the enemy together in a ditch when a North Vietnamese soldier threw a hand grenade at them. Jenkins immediately pushed Ostrom to the ground and jumped on top of him to shield him from the blast, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Ostrom survived, but Jenkins did not. He was 20 years old.

“He saved more than my life — I have two kids,” Ostrom later said.

Robert H. Jenkins, Jr. (Copyright 2023 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

The two couldn’t have been more different and weren’t particularly close, Ostrom told the Tampa Bay Times in 1996. Ostrom was a young white man from New York and Jenkins was Black from small-town Florida.

“So it didn’t matter to him, his complexion, because evidently, he was colorblind in his heart,” Leo Grainger said.

Leo and Shirley Grainger are working to keep the memory of Putnam County hero Robert Jenkins Jr. alive. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Leo Grainger said Jenkins’ sacrifice is an important part of Black history that should live on. He is one of only 23 Medal of Honor Recipients in Florida.

“That was an opportunity to bring his name home to Interlachen in which he was born in 1948,” Leo Grainger said.

The school district’s plan called for Interlachen High School and C.H. Price Middle School to merge into one school so a new name had to be chosen. The Graingers, who have helped award a scholarship in Jenkins’ name for the last nine years, said the best way to honor Jenkins would be to name the new school after the hometown hero.

“I feel like it will trigger somebody to ask who is Robert Jenkins? And then his memory can continue on,” Shirley Grainger said.

Their plan worked.

Even though the newly consolidated school was renamed Interlachen Jr. - Sr. High School, the school board voted unanimously in 2021 to rename Interlachen Elementary School as Robert H. Jenkins Jr. Elementary, ensuring the Black American hero’s legacy will live on for generations to come.

School Board Member Sandra Gilyard passionately about preserving Jenkins Jr.’s name.

“A lot of people assume that he died in the war, he gave his life,” Gilyard said. “All I want is that his name is not lost forever. Our children need to know.”

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Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.