Preserving Stillwater's Forgotten All-Black School Building

A few blocks from downtown Stillwater’s Main Street, there is an abandoned building that many pass by without a second glance. For some, it's merely a piece of the past, forgotten and neglected. But for others, like Dr. Laura Arata, the Washington School holds a history that needs to be preserved.

Monday, April 22nd 2024, 5:01 pm

By: Katie Eastman


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A few blocks from downtown Stillwater’s Main Street, there is an abandoned building that many pass by without a second glance. For some, it's merely a piece of the past, forgotten and neglected. But for others, like Dr. Laura Arata, the Washington School holds a history that needs to be preserved.

Arata, a professor of history at Oklahoma State University, walked by the 12th Avenue building when she bought a home in the neighborhood. People told her not to worry because that “eyesore” would be torn down. But Arata held out hope for another way. 

“All the other school buildings from that era are preserved,” said Dr. Arata. “All the rest of them have a new life serving the community. This building also deserves a chance to serve the community and represent a community that cared about it.”

Constructed in 1938 with federal funding from the New Deal, the Washington School stood as a beacon of hope for Black students in Stillwater during segregation. Before its existence, Black students had to be bussed out of town to attend high school. But the Washington School changed that, becoming not just a place of learning, but a symbol of pride for the Black community.

Karen Washington, who attended the school in kindergarten and 1st grade, reminisces fondly about her time there and what the school meant to her community. Despite the challenges of segregation, the Washington School was a haven.

“So by not concentrating on what we couldn't do and putting emphasis on what we could do, which was love each other, learn, get educated, it just made for an awesome environment,” said Washington, President of The Washington School Alumni Association.

But when Arata reached out to Washington, the building was in the hands of an investor with plans to demolish it.

“I thought she's not even from Oklahoma,” said Washington. “But then I thought, okay, but if she can, why not just see it through? It costs you nothing but time.”

As the conversation started again, students got involved, city leaders paid attention, and in 2022, an anonymous donor gave $250,000 to the city so they could buy back the building.

With the building in the city’s hands, the possibility for preservation remains.

“It's a reparation for us,” said Washington. “Because it's a sign that you care, and at the end of the day, all of us, no matter what color we are, we just want to know that people care.”

Washington, Arata, and several other community leaders are now a part of the Washington School Advisory Committee to plan what happens next with the school.

They hope to turn it into a community center to represent a story that hasn’t been told in Oklahoma.

“You know they're not seeing color,” said Washington after being appointed to the committee. “They're seeing progress. They want to see history.”     

Related Story: Forgotten High School Basketball Champs In Stillwater Get To Celebrate 68 Years Later

        

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