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Alva James-Johnson: Was Claflin really the first black school in Columbus?

Alva James-Johnson ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.com

If you've ever strolled down the 1200 block of First Avenue, you might have noticed a historic marker for Columbus' first black public school.

It's near the former location of Temperance Hall, which was the city's foremost theater before the Springer Opera House opened in 1871.

"Near here, in July 1872, the first local public school for black students opened," the marker reads. "The school was the result of an action by the City Council directing the Trustees of the Columbus Public School to set up classes for blacks."

At first glance, the marker seems to contradict claims that Claflin School on Fifth Avenue sits on the site of the first black school in Columbus. And a very observant Ledger-Enquirer reader recently brought the apparent discrepancy to my attention.

That reader is Scooter MacMillan, the Springer's marketing director.

"None of the stories I've read about the Claflin school have explained this contradiction. Should they have?" he asked in an email.

That piqued my curiosity, considering the amount of effort Friends of Historic Claflin have put into trying to save the old school building. The group recently signed a lease agreement with the city and launched a $10 million fundraising campaign.

Claflin is now listed on the Georgia Register of Historic Places, the National Historic Register and is among the state's 10 Places in Peril. So I wondered, "Could all this be for naught?"

I contacted Elizabeth Barker, executive director of the Historic Columbus Foundation, and she sent the following information: "Claflin Academy was started by the Freedman's Bureau in 1868. The historic marker in the 1200 block of 1st Avenue is to recognize the first school for Black students established by the Columbus Public Schools in 1872. Claflin became a part of the Columbus Public Schools in 1880."

That simply means Claflin was the first black school in Columbus, but not the first black "public school," a subtle but important distinction.

So I called up the Rev. Richard Jessie, executive director of Friends of Historic Claflin. He said he wasn't aware of the marker on First Avenue, but he would be interested in learning more about the Temperance Hall school.

"That does not take anything away from Claflin and what we're doing," he said. "As a matter of fact, I think it's a testament to the fact that education is important."

In another email, MacMillan linked Temperance Hall to one of the nation's most significant events.

John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln's assassin, was scheduled to perform at the hall just before the South seceded, according to the email. But his agent accidently shot him in the backside an hour before he was scheduled to go on stage. When he went back north, he was not able to stand for more than three hours and needed another way to make a living. So he accepted an offer to assas

sinate Lincoln for $40,000.

" So, Lincoln was killed because of a wound that John Wilkes Booth received in Columbus at the site of what would become the city's first African American school," according to MacMillan.

Temperance Hall may not have been the very first black school in Columbus, but it's sure a fascinating part of history.

Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.

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