Long before the modern-day iteration of Stanton College Preparatory School grew to be one of the country’s top public high schools, its predecessor – Stanton Normal School – served as the finest institution available to local Black students during the late 19th and early 20th century.
Stanton Normal School first opened its doors at 521 W. Ashley Street in 1869. Named for former Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the school was a collaboration between the federal Freedmen’s Bureau and the trustees of the locally-formed Florida Institute aimed at providing educational opportunities to former slaves and free Black residents.
The school was one of just a few schools available to Black students throughout the entire state of Florida. Among its earliest students were activist and Clara White Mission founder Eartha M. M. White and famed Jacksonville native and civil rights figure James Weldon Johnson. Johnson’s mother worked at the school as one of its first Black teachers, and upon graduating from college, he returned to work there himself as the school’s principal. Johnson wrote the famed hymn “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” with his brother Rosamond during his tenure as principal of Stanton.
A fire destroyed the school’s first building in 1882. A new building was constructed, but it also burned down during the Great Fire of 1901.
A third building was constructed in 1902, by which point public funding for projects involving Black residents was nearly impossible to come by. The third building was poorly built and later condemned as a fire hazard after less than two decades.
A community effort led in part by Johnson helped save the school from decommissioning, and a fourth building was completed in 1917.
The fourth building would become the lasting image of Old Stanton. Its three-story, T-shaped brick design was helmed by Mellen C. Greeley. With its building in order, the school continued to serve as an integral part of Jacksonville’s Black community for decades as it helped to shape the minds of multiple generations of local Black students.
In 1953, the modern Stanton building – New Stanton High School – was built along 13th Street. Old Stanton, as it became known, was utilized as a vocational school for almost two decades before full decommissioning in 1971.
New Stanton has since built a reputation as the area’s best public school, but its old building has meanwhile been left to deteriorate. The structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, but it has sat mostly unused in the years since.
Today, the property is fenced off and still stewarded by the Florida Institute – now known as Historic Stanton Inc. The group is raising funds to preserve and potentially redevelop the property into, among other uses, a museum that honors its historic significance.
For information on how to contribute, visit https://www.historicstanton.org/fundraising.html.