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On Monday, May 16, 2022 an Indiana Historical Marker honoring the legacy of John Hope School No. 26 and the Paul Laurence Dunbar Library was dedicated near the corner of East 16th Street and Columbia Avenue. At The Oaks Academy, we call this historic building home to our Middle School (grades 6 – 8) and will soon welcome our youngest learners to a dedicated wing of the building housing our Pre-Kindergarten Education Center. Together, these two programs will jointly share our newly renamed campus: The Oaks Academy, Martindale-Brightwood at John Hope School 26.

By name and action, we strive to honor the history of our campus by building relationships with School 26 alumni and sharing their stories. In conjunction with the dedication ceremony, a documentary, The Glories of Our Journey: A Community Story, was premiered that sheds further light on the rich history of the building and neighborhood. While the historical marker text was limited to 370 characters per side and the documentary to 45 minutes, the lifetime of School 26 spanned nearly 120 years. We continue to explore more of those years not already covered in the paragraphs below.

The Beginnings of School 26

On the eastside of Indianapolis in 1869, the first Black doctor in Indiana, S.A. Elbert, founded one of the early day schools for African American children in Allen Chapel. When free schools were established in Indianapolis, the children moved across the street to School No.18. Founded in 1881, School No. 26 was the neighborhood school, but at the time was only open to white children. While the student population of School No. 18 continued to grow, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Plessy v. Ferguson and affirmed racial segregation in schools under the doctrine of “separate but equal”. In 1901, the larger School No. 26 became a segregated school for African American students.

School No. 26 balanced book knowledge with skills training (gardening, sewing, carpentry, cooking). Adult night school was organized by local men, and migrant children from the south were welcomed. One school commissioner was quoted as calling it “a little Tuskegee” and educational reformer, John Dewey, who visited, devoted an entire book chapter to the praise of the school’s community inspired programs. Due to overcrowding, School No. 26 moved one block to its current location on Columbia and 16th Street in 1921. This building, newly erected, consisted of 25 classrooms, home economics, shop, auditorium, office, and nurse’s room.

The Beginnings of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Library

Despite the Indianapolis Public Library’s 1873 founding official policy of “open to all,” entrenched segregation precluded Black citizens from visiting Spades Park Library, located a half mile south of the School 26 in a white neighborhood. In 1922, the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch Library opened in School No. 26 as the first library organized in an Indianapolis African American community. Lillian Haydon Childress Hall, the first African American to graduate from an accredited library school in Indiana, served as the manager of Dunbar from 1922-1927.

Growth at School No. 26

One of School 26’s early principals was Matthias Nolcox. Nolcox grew up in the Lyles Station Settlement and later became the first principal to lead segregated Crispus Attucks High School. George L. Hayes would follow Mr. Nolcox as principal of School 26. Mr. Hayes would oversee two extensions to the school building, the first in 1938 and the second in 1949. In 1938, School No. 26 was renamed John Hope School, for Mr. Hayes’ friend and champion for African American education. The extension in 1938 led to the inclusion of a 9th grade class to account for overcrowding at Crispus Attucks as well as students with disabilities.

James E. Roberts School for Crippled Children, with state-of-the-art facilities, was built a mile south of School No. 26 in 1936 but was for white students only. The 1938 expansion of School 26 included a $90,000 addition to care for African American students with disabilities, who were transported from all over the city. The school’s total enrollment reached 1480, making it the largest elementary school in the state of Indiana. In 1949, a second wing was built, this time adding room for an early education center and larger location for the Dunbar Library. That year also marked the passage of a law by the Indiana legislature that prohibited segregation in schools.

Changing Times

In 1968, the Marion County Library merged with Indianapolis Public Library and separated from the School Board. The Dunbar Library was the last school branch to close in 1967, in part due to reorganization in some part due to low circulation. Desegregation at John Hope was slow, still at 90% African American students in 1973. The community changed dramatically as a result of highway construction and the eventual federally mandated busing policies. While most of the long-time African American residents moved away, School 26 maintained a defining role until it closed as an elementary school in 1997. To this day, a legacy of resilience and love endures in the School 26 alumni, many of whom still live in the neighborhood.

The School 26 building stayed open and became home to an adult education center until 2015, when IPS leased the building to The Oaks Academy for our Middle School. In just a few years, we grew to inhabit the full building and eventually purchased it from IPS in 2019. In 2021, we began the process of updating the southern wing of the building to house our Pre-Kindergarten Education Center which will launch in the fall of 2022. We hope that, though we will build our own legacy in this historic building, we will continue to remember and honor the legacy of those who went before us.

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