To some people in Stillwater, the old building across from Southern Woods Park on 12th Avenue looks like just another derelict building. Many do not know what it is or understand its meaning. But for others, the former Booker T. Washington School is both a reminder of inequality and a symbol of the excellence that can come from a community, even under adversity.
The brick building at 619 W. 12th Ave. that housed the Booker T. Washington School served the students of Stillwater’s Black community from its construction in the 1930s until the end of segregation. It has been empty for decades.
Now, the Washington School presents an enticing opportunity as people from the community and Oklahoma State University join forces to see if a building that represents a remarkable part of Stillwater’s history can be saved.
The Washington School has been named to Preservation Oklahoma’s list of Most Endangered Places for 2022. According to the listing, Stillwater’s Washington School is one of only three remaining examples of the more than 50 black schools that once existed across Oklahoma, and is the only one available for preservation.
The building, once intended for public use, was allowed to pass into private ownership in 2007, putting it at risk of demolition for redevelopment.
“The fact that this story still stands is a big deal,” said Laura Arata, director of public history at Oklahoma State University. “…Buildings much worse than this have been saved and become wonderful things.”
The public is invited to an informal community call at the Sheerar Auditorium, 702 S. Duncan St. Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. to talk about the Washington School and what could be done to save it.
Matthew Pierce, program coordinator for the Oklahoma Historical Society’s State Historic Preservation Office, will be on hand to answer questions and provide information on ways to move forward with the Washington School’s preservation.
This is just a first discussion, Arata stressed.
Arata, who has researched and written books on the history of African Americans in the West, said she first became aware of the Washington School a few years ago after moving into a house down the street. When the COVID-19 pandemic brought most things to a halt, she walked by the old school every day.
“I had questions and time to research,” she said.
In March 2021, Arata led a group of engineers and public history students through the Washington School to assess the condition of the building. She submitted an application that helped place the building on the list of most endangered places, a designation intended to raise awareness of historic buildings to be preserved.
Others have also noticed. The Ingressors, a Facebook group of photographers and videographers documenting old and abandoned places, introduced the Washington School in 2019. Abandoned Oklahoma, an online group dedicated to preserving Oklahoma’s past, also published a lengthy article about the Washington School in May.
Despite the attention, the Washington School remains in the market and at risk.
In late 2011, a developer asked Stillwater City Council to convert the property from public use to office use, with plans to demolish the existing school building and build an office complex.
In 2012, after the developer offered to donate bricks from the building and give $2,000 along with a spot on the property, the city council agreed to erect a memorial to the Washington School, but this project ultimately stalled.
Ironically, the chronic flooding that was believed to have damaged the building beyond repair also saved it from redevelopment.
At least for now.
Arata said she has received a lot of support and help from people in the process so far. She sees it as a testament to the community and the importance of the school.
“It was such a heartwarming thing,” she said. “No one has ever said ‘no’ while working on it. … I guess take it one step at a time and we’ll go from there on how it all went with this building.”