WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The historic Roosevelt High School, which opened in 1950, sits deteriorating at 15th and Tamarind Avenue in West Palm Beach.
Industrial High School opened on the site in 1914 as the ﬁrst high school for Blacks in Palm Beach County. Industrial’s last class graduation was in 1950, which paved the way for Roosevelt High. Roosevelt’s last graduation class was in 1970, followed by the integration of county schools.
Despite its current condition, the pride of the African-American community during segregation remains a treasure in the hearts of stanch alumni such as Cora Perry and Juan Burrows, president and vice-president of a group that’s spearheading efforts to preserve the school and turn it into a literal treasure for the community.
On Dec. 23 they and other members of the Industrial Roosevelt High School National Alumni and Friends organization held a holiday gala at the sparkling Riviera Beach Marina Event Center, as part of their fundraising to refurbish the historic campus and add academic and vocational programs, a health center and library among other initiatives.
The surpassed their expectations, Perry said, but coming up with an estimated $1 million to renovate the site will require much more than garnered from Friday’s $100 entrance fee.
“The gala was very successful,” said Perry. “We exceeded the number of alumni we expected to come. Some of us hadn’t seen each other in 20 or more years. Many have expressed they want us to do it again and again, and many have said they want to support the mission even more so now.”
The former students still enjoy a strong bond, she said. “Even though we had our individual classes, everyone loved each other from 7th grade through 12th grade!” Burrows too said there was an indistinguishable love for the school among its students, parents, faculty and the community.
“We spent more time at Roosevelt High than we did at home or church,” said Burrows. “And on homecoming you could’ve robbed a store because everyone in town was going to be at the parade.”
They and others spoke of the immense pride emanating from those associated with Roosevelt. They noted how the teachers and administrators cared deeply about the students and all aspects of their lives, such as manners, grooming, etiquette as well as classwork.
Samuel Bruce McDonald still is revered among the foremost educators and administrators of that era. Now in his 90s, the former teacher, principal and area superintendent still imparts wisdom and pours out accolades to his former students and their families, who were elated to see him.
Perry was ecstatic that McDonald made his way to the gala despite being nearly a centenarian with some health issues. “The highlight of the event was that Mr. McDonald was able to come and stay until the end of the night,” he said.
McDonald, the brainchild behind the national alumni association, spoke about togetherness and coalescing to keep the Roosevelt site afloat and thriving.
“I’m not going to tell you all what to do,” McDonald said. “You know what you want – whether it’s a library or a museum. I’m just going to tell you that we must work together.”
McDonald cited Burrows as one of the ﬁrst on board to preserve the old campus. Burrows said a few of them met at McDonald’s home several years ago to discuss the school’s preservation. But Burrows says he’s known and revered McDonald since childhood.
In another high point of the evening, Roosevelt cheerleaders from the ’50s and ’60s were acknowledged. Each made a separate entrance strutting down a long stretch of a walkway to the front of the room. The crowd cheered as if they were at a pep rally back in high school.
Also honored was the Roosevelt Class of 1957 and alumna Georgia Gilbert, known for their community service revolving around the school.
Once seemingly at odds about what to with the school site, the Palm Beach County School Board is a partner in the planning, Perry said, and numerous organizations are working on the preservation project. Some will be housed on the site.
It is undeniable that Roosevelt is in the hearts and minds of many, Burrows said. “Roosevelt was our ﬁrst love and our ﬁrst crush!”