It has been decades since the sounds of reading lessons and laughter echoed off the walls of an historic schoolhouse where African-American children were taught during the segregation era.
The Rhoda L. Martin Cultural Heritage Center in Jacksonville Beach is quiet once again. After housing a new Duval County charter school this past school year, the red brick schoolhouse, built in 1939, will be restored to a museum.
Known as the Jacksonville Beach School for Colored Children, it was the only place east of the Intracoastal Waterway where African-American elementary students were taught. It also became a cultural symbol where voting, health clinics, sock hops and other social events were held.
The school was founded by Rhoda L. Martin, a former slave who started it in the kitchen of her home. She lived to be 116 years old.
The four-room schoolhouse narrowly avoided the wrecking ball in 2001, as a preservation committee that was created to save it struggled to get grants and private donations to move the building and buy land for a permanent home. Weeks before the demolition date, a Beaches couple, Chris and Nadia Hionides, donated the land. The schoolhouse was converted into a museum with original furnishings dating from 1939 to 1960.
The museum opened in 2007, and former students of the original school involved in the project referred to it as a labor of love, saying it not only preserved the town’s African-American culture and history, but united multiple generations of students, teachers and administrators.
Seaside Community Charter School leased the museum for the 2013-14 school year. It was a welcome revenue source that will help fund building and landscape improvements and display cases for exhibits, Sullivan says. The museum plans to reopen next year with a new director and permanent exhibits, although no date has been set.
Now in its second year, the charter school has moved to a site on State Road A1A in Mayport, near Hanna Park. The old schoolhouse illuminated lessons about segregated education, as recently as when the charter school students’ grandparents were growing up.
“The students could really feel the history,” said Catrina Hall, an associate professor of early childhood literacy at the University of Florida who wrote the charter school’s grant. “It was a perfect spot.”
In honor of the schoolhouse’s 75th anniversary, museum coordinators are hosting a “Night on the Hill” fundraiser on October 17, featuring music and a local chef.
“We’re back at it after having a year off,” says Lillie Sullivan, president of the museum’s board. “We want to take our time and really work at getting it looking like a museum. We know we have our work cut out for us.”
The “Night on the Hill” event will take place at Rockaway Garden Center at 510 Shetter Ave. in Jacksonville Beach. Tickets will be $75.