Colored Schools Museum groundbreaking in more ways than one

After more than 70 years, school is back in session in the historic Jamestown neighborhood of Seminole County. 

With the official groundbreaking of the Historic Oviedo Colored Schools Museum on Monday, a journey years in the making took its biggest step, and was celebrated by more than 100 members of the Oviedo and surrounding communities.

The museum will be housed at the site of Gabriella Colored School, 2170 James Drive, an elementary school that closed in 1951, and is the only former school building of its kind still standing in the area.

“It is a momentous occasion that words cannot even convey,” said Judith Dolores Smith, president of the Board of Directors of the Historic Oviedo Colored Schools Museum (HOCSM). “What I hope will happen is that what will occur in this building will transcend the area here, and not only this area. The entire world.”

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Judith Delores Smith said she hopes the museum will be open to the public by the end of the year. Photo by Eric Orvieto.

Between 1890 and 1967, there were at least six “colored schools” in the Oviedo area: Oviedo Elementary, Jackson Heights Elementary, Geneva, Wagner, Kolokee and Gabriella. They were set up by descendants of former enslaved people who wanted to ensure their children received high-quality education amid segregation. Many shared spaces with local churches, often in small, one-room buildings.

“The colored schools back in the era [were] started in churches like this,” said Kelley Muller-Smith, vice president of HOCSM’s board of directors, and whose father, Stanley Muller, was the first principal of Jackson Heights. “They were all over the Seminole County area.

“We are trying to educate everybody. It doesn’t matter about color,” she said. “It started back before any of us were around. My grandfather was one who was, of course, uneducated. He was a minister and he ministered the [Grant Chapel AME] church that I grew up in. … The church building was used for church services on Sunday but, during the week, that’s where we went to school. And we want to carry that vision so that everybody knows.”

Smith, whose mother attended the Oviedo Colored School, which was situated next to the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Oviedo, and later taught at Jackson Heights Elementary, began the work of creating the museum five years ago when she passed by the then-empty one-room building that had been home to Gabriella Colored School and an African Methodist Episcopal Diocese (AME) congregation at the corner of James Drive and West SR-426. She saw a hole in the roof, and instead of waiting for others to fix it, Smith took it upon herself, she said.

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After working with the Central Conference of the AME, which owns the building, to fix the roof, Smith began the process of turning it into a museum. She put together the board, secured a 25-year lease on the building and applied for and eventually received a $228,500 grant from the state of Florida’s Department of State to help develop the brick-and-mortar parts of the building. The museum will display artifacts, recordings, pictures and other history related to the schools.

The interior development is only the beginning. The eventual plans include updating the outside of the building to look as it did when it was operating as a school.

“You think, oh, this little building here, what could it mean?” Smith said. “It means a lot.

“What do you do when you are faced with difficult circumstances – and what more difficult can it be to be denied legal access to your rights?” she said. “We did not let that stop us. This little old one-room school is evidence [of that]. It’s all we had, so we worked with what we had.”

Among those in attendance for the groundbreaking were Oviedo Mayor Megan Sladek, multiple members of the city council, representatives from the Seminole County Sheriff’s and Oviedo Police departments and Seminole County Commissioner Bob Dallari, who was one of the speakers at the event.

A crowd of people attended the HOCSM groundbreaking event on Monday. Photo by Eric Orvieto.

“By having a museum, you’re actually hearing from the people from the past,” Dallari said. “It’s important that we celebrate the past in many different ways. Our community is truly blended in more ways than people sometimes want to talk about.

“When we hear from the past, we honor those folks,” he said. “And we also honor the people from the future so that we understand where we came from and we understand where we’re heading.”

To get to this point, the HOCSM has received support from many in the community. While the building is not located in the city limits of Oviedo, Mayor Sladek played a role in helping advance the project.

Sladek is a member of The Oviedo Preservation Project, a non-profit run by a group of volunteers who help preserve history and sites around the city. The group provided a grant to pay for the asbestos inspection for the building.

“Not only is it in an historic building, but it is an historic accomplishment … for the whole county to celebrate a part of history that we kind of don’t talk about a lot, but we really ought to,” Sladek said. 

The museum will display artifacts, recordings, pictures and other history related to the schools. Photo by Eric Orvieto.

The inspection was not the only help the board received from the community. Despite Smith fixing the hole in the roof early on, it still needed major repairs. 

“The building was falling apart,” Smith said. “The roof was gone.” 

After learning about the roof issues at the 2022 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, Certified Best Roofing president Derrick Vittitow and CEO Carrie Moreau jumped into action.

Vittitow and Moreau pulled roof measurements, helped with permits and began sourcing material and put together a plan to install a new metal roof that would be historically accurate for the building and the era. 

“The thing that got my attention was when [Smith] talked about the power of education, and how that was hope for the community,” Vittitow said. “She just kind of explained, nobody felt bad for themselves, nobody was depressed. It was just like they were passionate about life and happy and they just wanted to see their kids succeed.

“That’s really cool and that would make a great museum,” he said. “It needed to be done, and I feel like someone had to step up to do it, and [we] wanted to do it.

In all, Vittitow estimates that it would have been a $12,000 project, all of which was provided to the museum at no cost. Vittitow said that they are continuing to help with the project’s interior as it advances.

“The building needed a roof, and they gave us a roof,” Smith said. “I gave them my signature, [and] they gave us the roof.

“[They] saw a need,” she said. “Not only did they see it, they put their money where their mouth is and they saved the building so that we could go on and use our grant money [for other parts of the museum].”

Smith hopes the museum will be opened to the public by the end of the year, and be used to help educate the community and beyond.

“Our message resonates to anyone, worldwide,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Black, white, pink, purple. We are saying that you can rise above whatever disadvantages you may have. You can rise.”

Editor’s note: Thanks to an OCN program where top newsroom donors can designate a nonprofit of their choice to receive one month of free advertising, HOCSM recently appeared as an OCN sponsor. This in no way affected the newsroom’s decision to write this article, as OCN maintains a firewall between its financial and editorial decisions. Read OCN’s Editorial Independence and Financial Disclosure Policy here

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