PRESERVING HISTORY; New Cultural Center 'A Labor of Love' It's at the Site of a Longtime African-American School during the Segregation Era

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Byline: CAREN BURMEISTER

JACKSONVILLE BEACH - An eight-year labor of love to preserve a schoolhouse where Beaches-area African-Americans were taught apart from whites finally gave birth Saturday to a museum honoring the school's founder.

Applause rang from the Rhoda L. Martin Cultural Heritage Center as Tara Jones belted out a soulful national anthem and Lift Every Voice and Sing at Saturday's grand opening ceremony.

Roughly 100 people, many of them former students and relatives of school principals, swayed to the music as they held umbrellas to block the scorching sun.

"This certainly has been a labor of love," said master of ceremonies Bishop Percy Golden about the effort to move and restore the schoolhouse at 376 Fourth Ave. S.

The building, formerly the Jacksonville Beach School for Colored People, is viewed by many as a historical and cultural symbol for the black community. The red brick, four-room structure is named for Martin, who founded the school in her home and lived to be 116 years old.

Built in 1939, it was for decades the only place east of the Intracoastal Waterway where African-American elementary students were taught. It was also considered the heart of their community, where health clinics, a voting precinct, sock hops and other social events were held.

Supporters sipped punch and listened to a jazz duo as they browsed old photographs and toured classrooms arranged with small wooden desks, textbooks, chalkboards and a cast-iron pot belly stove.

"It just feels like a dream come true," said Lawilda Bartley, a former student and member of the preservation project's historical committee.

The grand opening also showcased an exhibit of African-American artifacts, photos and collectibles dating from 1740 to the 1970s from Carol Mundy of Orlando, including a handstitched cloth doll from New Orleans and iron slave shackles.

During the ceremony, former student Peggy Johnson told how the school was founded in the kitchen of Martin's two-story home on the corner of Shetter Avenue and Sixth Street South.

In 2001, when a wrecking ball was just days away from bringing down the building, the school was moved from the original site at Jacksonville Beach Elementary School to land donated by Chris and Nadia Hionides. …