Alumni Push To Save Former All-Black School In Jeffersonville, Ind.
The last segregated school in Jeffersonville, Ind., resembles many other deteriorating buildings in the area.
Red bricks, each faded to varying degrees, form the exterior of the two-story structure at 821 Wall Street. Windows have been replaced with boards painted a similar color, giving the facade a monolith-like appearance that’s only broken up by white trim and the words “City School.” This, in combination with its location hidden away from downtown’s main strip, makes the building an easy one to ignore.
But some Jeffersonville residents are bringing attention to the site and its history as Taylor High School, a former all-Black school from Jeffersonville's segregated past. After years of being overlooked, alumni and community members are calling for the school to be restored and preserved as a historical site.
“Black history is significant,” said Frank Baines, Jr., who graduated from Taylor High School in 1952. “It should be, not only to Black people. It should be to all people.”
Built in 1891, Taylor High School educated Black students in grades 1-12. It became an integrated elementary school in 1952, three years after the Indiana legislature ordered desegregation in schools. It closed in the 1970s.
Baines, 85, and fellow Taylor High graduate Flora Clipper, 97, have no shortage of stories when looking back on their childhoods and education. The pair recently visited with one another at the Jeffersonville Township Public Library with yearbooks and photos from their personal collections.
They pored over the old documents scattered on the table before them, swapping stories each time a familiar face or name sparked a memory. Growing up in Jeffersonville during segregation is a personal history they share with many older Black members of the community, but one that’s rarely detailed in local history books lining the shelves around them.
“They say it was ‘separate, but it was equal,’” Baines said. “No, it was not. That was just fuzzy talk going on trying to justify segregation.”
Many resources and amenities offered to white students in Jeffersonville were not available at Taylor High School. The coursework was limited compared to white schools. Later in its history, students were allowed to walk to the old Jeffersonville High School on Court Avenue to attend classes not offered at Taylor High School, like auto shop.
While Clipper doesn’t recall ever stepping foot in Jeffersonville High School, she does remember when a Black teacher from New Albany attempted to attend a basketball game there, only to be turned away. She said it wasn’t until integration became imminent that the school system started upgrading Taylor High School. Up until that point, students there had to use outdoor restrooms, even though indoor plumbing was installed at the white schools.
“They didn't want their children going outside to the bathroom, so they started adding all of this,” Clipper said. “That really was the ridiculous part about ‘separate but equal.’ As long as it was all Black, it was fine. But when they found out that they had to integrate the school, they put the addition on.”
Keepsakes and mementos help Baines and Clipper share their memories, but they want to keep the story of the school alive long after they’re gone. That’s why they’re pushing for the preservation of Taylor High School’s building on Wall Street.
“Let’s bring back the historical significance of it and remind you and let you know down through the ages,” Baines said. “Should we forget? No.”
Baines said alumni have discussed saving the school for many years. But those attempts have repeatedly hit roadblocks. The building is privately owned and now sits on an industrial site.
Geo. Pfau’s Sons Company bought the property at auction in 1987. Owner Ned Pfau said the company originally intended to demolish the building before learning more about the former school. He said he has since made efforts to preserve the building by boarding up windows and installing a new roof.
But Pfau doesn’t want the site to become any sort of museum or memorial open to the public. He is willing to let go of the building for that purpose, but it would have to be moved from his property.
“Long-term, it’s not a compatible structure with our operation,” Pfau said. “We’re willing to work with them anyway we can and help them financially. They’ve got to find out a way to really make this project a complete, successful movement to another location where they can do whatever they want.”
Such an endeavor would likely be costly and time-consuming. An adequate piece of property would have to be located and purchased. Prior to being moved, Pfau said the structural integrity would have to be improved since the building is in “terrible shape.”
Baines and other supporters of preservation see this proposal as a nonstarter. They expressed doubt that the building would survive relocation, or that enough funds could be raised to cover the costs.
Jeffersonville City Council member Ron Ellis received a portion of his elementary schooling at Taylor High School prior to integration. He said Pfau is presenting an offer that is likely unrealistic.
“[Pfau] is putting an obstacle in the way,” Ellis said. “First off, I don’t know if that school could stand to be moved. The other thing is the cost would be extremely prohibitive to move it.”
Ellis said while there is little the city council can do to help save the school, he believes Mayor Mike Moore has the power to steer negotiations. But Moore said he supports Pfau’s decision.
Moore called the school a “valuable piece of history” that he’d like to see preserved, but he said supporters need to come up with a plan that would respect Pfau’s property.
“We need to recognize the good things that have been done to preserve Taylor High School,” Moore said. “Everyone’s got their opinion, and I appreciate them, but the Pfau family has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Jeff in many different ways. For them to put a roof on that building, they understand what it takes to save it. I think the Pfau family would welcome anyone who can find space for that building, and his family have already made that offer several times.”
Earlier this year, Lincoln Crum, a business owner and Jeffersonville native, started a social media campaign to raise awareness of Taylor High School’s history. Crum would like to see the school stay where it is, and believes it could be linked to the NoCo Arts & Cultural District directly across the street.
One of his ideas would see the property split into two parcels. The section to the north comprising the annex could be demolished to form a new parking lot and buffer zone for Pfau’s business. This would allow the original building to be preserved and transformed into a public exhibit. But when asked about making such a compromise, Pfau said that he doesn’t support any outcome other than the relocation of the school.
Crum said regardless of which route is taken to preserve the school, the process must accelerate soon.
“I am afraid by the condition of the way it looks on the outside, unless there are some major preservation efforts that are started now, it may be too late,” Crum said. “And I don't want that to happen.”
The building’s condition isn’t the only factor put at risk by the passage of the time. Baines is one of only two living graduates from his class. Clipper is the last surviving member of the class of 1940. That’s why they are calling for progress now.
The alumni said the purpose of preserving the school isn’t only to memorialize its place in local Black history, but to also pay respect to Black educators, many of whom were fired or demoted after integration with white schools. Among those to be offered a lower position by school officials was Taylor High School’s final principal, Corden Porter.
Mary Whitticker, Porter’s daughter, graduated from Taylor High School in 1943. She said Jeffersonville was a much different city back then, one that didn’t allow her or other Black people to eat at certain restaurants or go to movie theaters. Change has come since then, but she said there is more work to be done.
As movements for racial justice continue, Whitticker, 93, said it’s important for young people today to remember how things used to be to better understand the fight ahead.
“A lot of people are unaware [of that history],” she said. “Our future generations need to know how far things have advanced, how we had to fight to get to where we are now, and how we’re still fighting.”
Many supporters of the push to save Taylor High School see it as one of the only surviving historical symbols of Black culture in Jeffersonville.
Whitticker believes preserving the school in its original location is the only choice that would respect its history.
“It should be preserved as it is now, because that’s how it was then.”