NEW ALBANY — Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
As Laura Renwick volunteered at Division Street School in New Albany one Saturday, an older woman named Clara walked through the door of the historic building. Her family had accompanied her from Chicago for a visit to the city where she had grown up — a city that she helped change.
On the old walls, educational boards presented the little school’s story. Back then, people of her color were made to watch movies from balcony benches and to stand at the back of empty buses. Segregation might not have necessarily been the law, but it certainly was the layout of the land.
Underneath the panel entitled “School Doors Opened,” a Louisville Time’s newspaper clipping from Sept. 5, 1950, showed a mother wiping something from a little girl’s chin. Both were in their Sunday best. Found in another display, the accompanying text from the story read, “New Albany public school racial segregation was broken today by a 6-year-old girl who went to class clutching a shiny new purse and her mother’s right hand.”
The child’s name was Clara Ann Walker.
Now close to 70 years old, Clara had returned to see a school that she, in fact, never had to attend. Five years before the U.S. Supreme Court ended racial segregation in schools, the Indiana legislature abolished the discriminatory act. Beginning in 1950, first graders of any race could attend the public school of their choice. Clara was one of these students.
While new opportunities came to Clara in 1950, before that time the two-roomed schoolhouse on Division Street was one of the few chances black children in New Albany had for public education.
As far back as 1831, the New Albany School Board voted to ban black students from public schools. Twelve years later, the Indiana legislature enacted laws that mandated only whites could attend these institutions. For black children, local churches became surrogates for schools until the government changes its mind.
Division Street wasn’t actually the first black school built in Floyd County. In 1870, the school corporation allocated funds that went to the construction of Olden Street School in the West Union neighborhood. Fifteen years later, money was again given to build a school for black students who lived in New Albany’s East End. Division Street School was born.
Separate but equal sounded good for many Americans at the time, but the everyday reality for schools like Division Street was anything but equal.
“From what I understand, they were using hand-me-down textbooks here and they were having three grades in one room and probably sharing desks at certain times,” said Renwick, a board member of Friends of Division Street School. “And they had nothing in the way of a playground or anything like that. It was just a field where they could run around.”
Still, the children valued their experiences and time at the school.
“It was not at all luxurious here but the kids loved it and speak fondly of it. The graduates that have come back and attended the dedication, they all had very positive experiences here,” she said.
Teachers, on the other hand, taught, disciplined and cared the same as instructors in white schools. A life-size photo of Mamie Starks still stands tall over a Division Street classroom. Before coming to the school, she had also taught at Olden Street. When the 1917 tornado struck West Union and demolished the school house, Starks freed herself from the rubble and ran to a local professor’s house for help.
“She worked with a flashlight into the night until every child had been freed,” a panel displayed at Division Street reads. “Many she saved, but some she found dead.”
Division Street suffered its own calamities. Two fires, one in 1913 and the other in 1922, damaged the school.
Yet perhaps the biggest disaster to befall the school came after its closure. For more than 50 years, the building was housed different things, including a maintenance shop. To many, a valuable piece of New Albany history was slowly falling apart.
In 1995, former Division Street student and New Albany-Floyd County School Corp. employee Kathryn Hickerson began a quest to preserve the old building. With the help of Scribner teacher and local historian Vic Megenity, the pair petitioned the school board, who still retained ownership of the property, to refurbish the school to its original appearance and open it as a “showcase” for black history. An April 12, 1995 New Albany Tribune article covered the passage of the plan.
Segregation “wasn’t just in the Deep South; it was in the North, too,” Megenity said at the meeting. “It’s something all our students need to know about.”
By 2004, enough money had been raised to renovate the building and open it to visitors, thus making it the oldest segregated school in Indiana still owned by a school corporation. Every fourth grade child in the public school system takes a field trip to the landmark. Others can visit the site from 1 to 3 p.m. every Saturday. While admission is free, donations are always welcome.
“There is just so little attention paid to the African American community,” Renwick said. “I think this is great to have this and have the opportunity for kids to come in and learn about New Albany’s African American heritage and unfortunately the legacy of segregation in our community.”