Podcast: Central High School's Contributions to Education in Galveston

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Exterior of Old Central Cultural Center in Galveston TX

For over 60 years on Galveston Island, from its humble beginnings in a rented building to its evolution into a revered educational establishment, Central High School nurtured countless minds, shaping the future of more than 40,000 students. Let's look into the history of Galveston's Old Central High School, the first public high school for Black students west of the Mississippi River. Central High School provided education for the island's Black community. Between 1886 and 1968, more than 40,000 Black students attended Central High School, producing more than 7,000 graduates.

Central was not the first school for African Americans in Galveston. In 1869, just four years after emancipation, the first school for African Americans in Galveston was opened. Located on Avenue M between 28th and 29th Street, the school's enrollment grew quickly. By 1876, there were four teachers with over 300 students. Today, the school would be considered for elementary and middle school students and was named the West District Colored School. African American citizens in Galveston were in dire need of a high school.

Central High School opened its doors in 1885, educating 125 students in a rented building on 16th Street. The first principal was Mr. Champion J. Waring, with only three teachers were on staff. Central High School was an imperative link between elementary school and higher education for African American students in Galveston. From 1886 to 1893, Central operated out of another rented building nearby, at Avenue N and 15th Street, and by 1888, Central had a new principal, John Rufus Gibson.

Gibson graduated from Wilberforce University in Ohio, the first college to be owned and operated by African Americans. John Rufus Gibson moved to Galveston in 1883. and began teaching in the city school system until he became principal of Central High in 1888. Under Gibson's leadership, Central High School gained notoriety and credibility. Through the late 19th century, Gibson and the staff worked hard to build the school's reputation and advocate for the students, aiming to further education for the African American students in Galveston and the surrounding area.

In the late 19th century, African American families moved to Galveston from all over Texas for better jobs, a stronger community, and to allow their kids to attend Central High School, one of the highest levels of education available for African Americans in Texas in the late 1800s.

In 1893, well-known Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton designed an elaborate two-story brick building with multiple classrooms at the corner of 26th Street and Avenue M, where it remained for 60 years. Although damaged, this building survived the 1900 storm. In the days following the nation's deadliest natural disaster, John Rufus Gibson, whose home was completely destroyed by the storm, worked closely with Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, to provide aid and relief for Galveston Island. In 1901, the 25th U.S. President, William McKinley, Appointed Gibson Consul General to the West African nation of Liberia, all while Gibson was Principal of Central High School.

In 1905, an addition was added to the campus of Central High School, an extension to the city library. The branch was named the "Colored Branch of the Rosenberg Library," a single room that housed 1,100 books, magazines, and other periodicals. It was the first library for African Americans in Texas and the first of its kind in the United States. The library was open to the Black community every weekday after school ended and Saturday afternoons from 2 pm to 6 pm. When the library branch opened, the Galveston Tribune described the place simply, "The room is a pleasant one."

With the growing number of students attending Central High School, A west wing was constructed in 1924, adding more classrooms, science laboratories, and an auditorium and gymnasium facility. By 1926, the school had become fully accredited, allowing graduates to apply to college without taking extra exams. Word had gotten around about the high-quality education available to Black students at Central High School. Many students were commuting to the island or renting rooms nearby. Teenagers from all over Texas left their families behind to attend Central High School.

John Rufus Gibson was so well respected in the Galveston community that in 1935, a petition containing 205 names was presented to the Galveston School Board, requesting that the name of Central High School be changed to Gibson High School. This petition was deferred by the school board, but John Rufus Gibson's dedication and service did not go unnoticed.

After 50 years of dedicated service, Principal Gibson retired in 1936 and was followed by Walter J. Mason, who remained principal until he died in 1941. By the 1940s, courses included spelling, rhetoric, physical training, arts, literature, and athletics, as well as vocational cooking, sewing, and woodwork classes.

Dr. Leon A. Morgan presided over the school from 1941 until 1967 and is considered a hero among educators. By the time Dr. Morgan took over, schools in Galveston ISD were White and Black, completely segregated. The Black schools were overcrowded and run down. One journalist described the difficult conditions that Morgan faced.

"In addition to the worn out central school building, three frame shacks have been moved onto the school's yard. One was used for health classes, another for a band hall, and the third for science, mechanical drawing, and art classrooms. While it's unbelievable, Galveston ISD did not add electric lights to those shacks until 1948." A new building being constructed was inevitable.

In May 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education United States Supreme Court ruling declared " separate but equal" educational facilities unconstitutional. However, Galveston ISD continued to segregate its students. In 1954, Central High moved to its fourth and final building, which added a gymnasium, a pool, laboratories, and additional classrooms. This new Central High School was constructed at 30th Street and Sealy Avenue. After transitioning to the new building, administrators and teachers were able to offer even better instruction. Students received statewide recognition for their extracurricular activities, including sports, singing clubs, band, and drama clubs.

Galveston's school system was finally integrated in 1968. Central High School students began attending Ball High School and the 1954 Central High School building was turned into Central Middle School, which still stands today.

We reflect on the profound impact that old Central High School had on the Galveston and Texas African American communities. Central High School not only provided education but also fostered a sense of pride and unity. Regardless of the structure that Central High School was educating students in, Central fostered the aspirations of generations, the tireless efforts of its educators, and the unyielding spirit of its students and principals. Though Central High School closed its doors in 1968, its legacy endures, inspiring future generations to strive for excellence and equality.

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."