|City/Town: • Oklahoma City|
|Location Class: • School|
|Built: • 1910 | Abandoned: • 2014|
|Status: • Demolished|
|Photojournalist: • Michael Schwarz • Emily Cowan|
On July 20, 1910 block 27 was bought from the Oklahoma Industrial Co. for $2,700 for a new school that would be known as Columbus Ward School. Originally supposed to be a two-story structure it was quickly realized that in order to accommodate the growing number of students in the area it would need to be enlarged. The eleven-room educational building would cost $40,000. It quickly helped transformed the Industrial Addition that it was located in to a developing area, 275 houses were built by the time the school was completed in 1911 and enrollment grew to 200 just two years after opening.
By 1922 enrollment was at five-hundred and thirty-two and the school was struggling with overcrowding and had to resort to using the basement as makeshift classroom space. Enlargement of the school was called upon in 1923, six rooms and an auditorium were added on for the hefty price tag of $52,000. Again in 1930, overcrowding was a serious issue within Columbus forcing Principal Roscoe C. Evans to separate the students into morning and afternoon groups. With the opening of nearby Stand Watie Columbus lost three hundred students and still did not have room to adequately teach the remaining nine hundred students. At no surprise again in 1937, a $27,000 annex was added to Columbus proving once again that the sheer size of this school was completely warranted, even back then.
The Daily Oklahoman Dec. 13, 1932, reported “Two men, caught on the roof of the Columbus School, were in the city jail for investigation. M.B. Fowler, night watchman, had seen the pair in the cafeteria where they had piled up some groceries. He called the police. They ran upstairs and found an opening to the roof.” The men had been apart of a six-man crew that had committed four other holdups that night aside from the burglary of the school.
Out of the Ordinary
Some things that distinguished Columbus School from others included not only its size but some of the programs it included for its students. In 1926 a dental clinic was opened in Columbus School, the Oklahoma Co. Dental Society supplied the equipment and part-time dentist while carnivals and plays supported the clinic. All six-hundred children attending would get their teeth examined and their defects noted so they could be fixed following the opening of the clinic. In 1950, the students created their own newspaper called The Columbus Star that published news about each classroom every six weeks. A war nursery was opened at Columbus on June 21, 1943, to provide children with care whose parent(s) work or are in the military. It consisted of a kitchen, sleeping room, and playroom and cost 50 cents per child. A cook, nurse, headteacher, and four assistants were employed for the nursery.
Feb. 26, 1946 Explosion
Custodian E.P. Burnett attempted to light a fire in the gas-burning furnace with a kerosene-soaked rag when accumulated gas in the furnace exploded. He sustained burns and cuts to his face, teachers led all 661 students to safety with no other injuries reported. The explosion took out six basement windows and two doors, damage costs were less than $1,000. Not even two hours after the explosion crews began work on repairing the damage which allowed students to return to classes a short day later.
March 4, 1982 Murder
On that fateful day, police cars and ambulances pulled up to Columbus Elementary as frightened bystanders watched in horror the events unfolding. Doris J. Moore 29, had recently ended her often on and off relationship with her former lover Willie L. Allen and moved herself and her daughter, Iesha, out of his home. At around 11:00 a.m., Gordon Benson, a long time friend of Ms. Moore and her family, was driving her to Columbus Elementary School to pick up Iesha for an appointment. Ms. Moores ex Willie Allen recognized the vehicle driven by Gordon Benson following them to the grade school. After they parked in wait for Moores’s daughter Iesha to come out Allen parked his car nearby, walked to Benson’s vehicle and demanded that Doris M. get out of it, she refused to do so. Willie Allen retrieved a .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle from his car and shot his ex-lover four times through the closed car window. He then turned to Benson and said, “You better go, because I’m fixing to start in on you, and finish you up next.” Benson testified he hid behind a tree and Allen fired two times at him and then left. Moore died as a result of her wounds, and Willie Allen was apprehended in Dallas, Texas, in late May of 1982. He received a trial where the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
In the early 1990s, Kerr-Mcgee Corp. took a struggling Columbus under their wing donating computers and started a tutoring program for individual students. Principal Judy Jones spoke highly of the corporation saying, “I’ve had the privilege of being here some 10 years. Early on I gave myself the challenge of finding a good partner with the school. I never dreamed I would be so fortunate as to have a prayer answered by such a dynamic company as Kerr-Mcgee. They have impacted the entire school plus the community.” Since Jones has been principal in 1988 attendance at the school has risen by 95%, state test scores soared from the bottom to top 25%.
In 1997 Columbus was one of five schools selected in the United States for an award that highlights the value gained when schools and businesses come together to help students. That same year in August the school closed for air-condition installation that was hazardous. Around two hundred students were bused to Exchange Avenue Baptist Church where they would learn temporarily. As for the other four hundred students, they would continue learning into barrack-like makeshift classrooms on Columbus School grounds. Tom McDaniel, the vice-chairman of Kerr-Mcgee Corp, thinks the situation would’ve been handled differently if Columbus was under the control of an advisory council rather than the Board of Education. This helped push the proposal by parents, teachers, and the Kerr-Mcgee employees that Columbus should become an enterprise school. Approval to make the educational building an enterprise school came in 1998, Tom McDaniel, said: “I personally have seen an amazing turnaround in one girl’s life just by someone paying attention, we think Columbus is the perfect place to implement this pilot program.”
End of an Era
Columbus Elementary functioned as a school for one hundred and four years serving Oklahoma City’s southside students. Undergoing multiple enlargements, tragedy, and lots of success Columbus was resilient when it came to misfortune. Community, teachers, students, and organizations banding together to protect the reputation and students at Columbus. Students would transfer to Jackson Elementary School. I spoke with Wesley Horton, former student (1964-1971) & founder of the Columbus Elementary Facebook Group, “During the 60’s when I attended, I made some of the best friendships I think I have ever had. Those friendships at that time were all based on innocence. As young kids, we had no preconceived notions of who we were or who our friends were,” said Wesley. “I had started the Columbus Facebook Page & Group to track all the kids I went to school at Columbus with during that time. The results were surprising. About 1/3 of the people I found were eager to participate, friendships were rekindled and we were interested to know where everyone was, and how life turned out for them.” Since then there has been hundreds of students reconnecting and sharing stories, pictures, and feelings about their days at Columbus. Mr. Horton describes his feelings towards his former classmates, “There is a line at the end of the movie “Stand by Me” where the storyteller is wrapping up his thoughts, which very succinctly describes how I feel about my former classmates, even after more than 50 years. “Although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years, I know I’ll miss him forever. I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
Since its closing, the school has remained empty, unable to find a serious buyer. On top of the deterioration caused by years of abandonment, lack of development in the area of Oklahoma City that it is located in, it has also become an unofficial shelter for the homeless population in the area and a party place for the neighborhood kids. The school shows graffiti plastered on the walls and to make matters worse has suffered from multiple fires. As of 2019, the Oklahoma City Fire Department has responded nine times to the vacant school with seven of those being fires. Most of the fires presumed to be warming fires made during the colder months although have all been controlled relatively quickly pose a threat to Columbus in a different way, with former students fearing the rap sheet of fires will draw more attention to city officials for demolition.
In 2021 the historic Columbus Elementary School that was more than a century old was knocked to the ground after being deemed unsafe and unsavable. It will forever live on in the memory of its former students.
[Photograph 2012.201.B0140.0331], photograph, February 26, 1946; (https://gateway.okhistory.org/ark:/67531/metadc317552/: accessed August 6, 2020), The Gateway to Oklahoma History, https://gateway.okhistory.org; crediting Oklahoma Historical Society.
[Photograph 2012.201.B0140.0333], photograph, 1934; (https://gateway.okhistory.org/ark:/67531/metadc312014/: accessed August 6, 2020), The Gateway to Oklahoma History, https://gateway.okhistory.org; crediting Oklahoma Historical Society.
[Photograph 2012.201.B0307B.0352], photograph, 1991; (https://gateway.okhistory.org/ark:/67531/metadc377420/: accessed August 6, 2020), The Gateway to Oklahoma History, https://gateway.okhistory.org; crediting Oklahoma Historical Society.
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