By Erick Johnson
It’s a question some whispered at community town meetings where the future of Roosevelt College and Career Academy’s historic building was being discussed.
Some wondered where Gary’s Black leaders were at a time when they were needed to add muscle to a campaign that lacked firepower. Most were absent as alumni and parents were kept in the dark about the status of the building that welcomed Blacks during Gary’s segregated past.
When the Distressed Unit Appeals Board made the final decision February 13 to close Roosevelt’s building for good, just one Black leader, who was rarely seen at any meeting, sent the Crusader a statement. Just one.
The DUAB’s decision came during Black History Month. Leading up to their decision were five community meetings held in Gary and Indianapolis. At those meetings, parents, alumni and Gary residents were limited to expressing their concerns about how the state-controlled school district is handling the historic school.
State Representative Vernon Smith attended the November 6 meeting in Indianapolis, becoming the first and only Black leader to voice his public support to save Roosevelt’s building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Saving Roosevelt’s building was an uphill battle from the start.
The struggling school district couldn’t find the funds to save the aging structure, which was estimated to cost between $9.3 to $15 million. Privately many said the building never had a chance and that Black leaders had given up long before the first meeting was held July 16.
Die-hard Roosevelt fans and alumni fought on anyway, without much public support from people often seen in the newspapers or at political events. To some, their efforts seemed foolish, but to them and others, they were fighters who refused to abandon hopes of revitalizing a relic whose doors welcomed students during Gary’s ugly, racially-segregated past.
There were also divisions among various Roosevelt alumni groups who were at odds over what direction they should take in communicating their concerns.
Meanwhile, the state was still wasting millions of dollars on a failed turnaround effort aimed at boosting academic achievement among Roosevelt’s students.
When Smith spoke out at the November 6 meeting he breathed new life into a campaign that was in desperate need of leadership. Roosevelt alumni had hopes Gary’s other Black leaders would follow suit. That never happened.
At the final community town hall meeting in February, there were no Black leaders among the crowd to give a final push to save Roosevelt’s building.
The names of the absent are familiar faces to Gary politics. Mayor Jerome Prince, former Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, State Senator Eddie Melton, Lake County Councilman Charlie Brown and Gary NAACP Chapter President Stephen Mays. Not even Councilman Linda Barnes-Caldwell (Fifth District) attended community town hall meetings and her district includes Roosevelt.
Most of the Gary Council members failed to attend any of the community town hall meetings. In addition to Barnes-Caldwell, other no shows from the council included Ron Brewer, Jr. and Mary Brown.
Before last December, Michael Protho, LaVetta Sparks-Wade, Carolyn Rogers, Herbert Smith and Rebecca Wyatt were all no shows at the community town hall meetings.
So was former Mayor Freeman-Wilson, who never publicly said anything about her alma mater as it crumbled under state control. However, weeks before she left office, Freeman-Wilson said she was in favor of the state returning local control back to the school district. She joined the council in voting 7-1 to pass a resolution urging the State Board of Education to do so.
Last week, Mayor Prince emerged victorious as his council agreed with him to veto the resolution to, in Prince’s words, “not send mixed messages” to the state as lawmakers review a bill that would defer about $40.3 million in loan payments to the school district.
It should be noted that Sparks-Wade was the one who publicly spoke out after the council declined to override Prince’s veto.
Melton was among several Black leaders who held a meeting two days after the state’s decision to close Roosevelt. He was also on the list of no shows at Roosevelt’s community meetings. During that time, he was traveling the state in his campaign for Indiana governor, with education as his primary agenda.
A group of some 500 students are all that is left of Roosevelt to carry on the next generation of graduates. Sources tell the Crusader that Roosevelt alumni are getting pushback to place a historic marker near Roosevelt’s shuttered building. It’s also uncertain what will happen to the crumbling building. Will it join the other vacant school buildings that are currently on death row?
Back to that statement from a Black leader who released it in response to the DUAB’s decision to close Roosevelt’s building.
It came from Mayor Prince. It reads, “It’s heartbreaking to see Roosevelt High School closing. It’s been such a major part of our city’s fabric and history. For some time, I’ve called for preserving the original Roosevelt High School to commemorate and celebrate the school’s robust history. We now also can begin to reimagine the area around the original school in ways that help move Gary forward.”
The Crusader emailed Prince’s spokesperson Michael Gonzalez, asking him when did the mayor ever “call for preserving the original Roosevelt High School to commemorate and celebrate the school’s robust history.”
Gonzalez said the statement was made during Prince’s campaign. In disbelief, the Crusader then questioned Prince’s current actions asking, “What about after he became mayor?”
Gonzalez never responded.