Dunbar School

Since February is Black History Month, it seems appropriate to take a more detailed look at a topic I first wrote about back in 2009, the Dunbar School, which was the school in Vincennes for African American children.

In 1870, a school for African American students was established at 13th and Hart streets. That part of the city was known as Idaho and, following the Civil War, was predominately populated by African Americans. In 1877, the school was replaced by a new two-story brick building constructed on the corner of 12th and Seminary streets.

Originally designated School No. 4, in the language of the day, it was typically referred to as the “colored school.” In 1916, when all of the city’s schools were given names, rather than numbers, it was christened the Dunbar School, after Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar was an influential African American writer. He was chiefly known as a poet, but his work included novels, short stories, and essays. He died in 1906 at the age of 33. Many schools in the United States still carry Dunbar’s name.

In order to accommodate more students, an addition was added to the building in 1891. Extensive remodeling was then undertaken in 1925.

It was also in 1891 that the school held its first commencement exercises. That year, the ceremony took place at what was then known as Green’s Opera House on the corner of Second and Busseron streets. There were five graduates. After the George Rogers Clark building opened in 1916, commencement was typically held in that school’s auditorium and at least once at the Vincennes Coliseum following its construction in 1926. There were many years when Dunbar had a single graduate.

The Dunbar School closed in the early 1930s, at which time its students were integrated into the other Vincennes schools. There was nothing altruistic about the school board’s decision to close Dunbar, rather, the reason was completely financial in nature. The onset of the Great Depression was having a major impact on the budget of Vincennes schools. For the 1932-33 school year, the city faced tens of thousands of dollars in budget reduction. All kinds of steps were taken to economize, including slashing all teachers’ salaries by ten%. At that time, the board decided to eliminate grades 7 through 12 at Dunbar, those grades then being made up of 18 students and three teachers.

By 1933, financial conditions had not improved, and more drastic changes were implemented. At their April meeting, the school board announced that Dunbar would close, with the 40 students then comprising grades 1-6 to be distributed among the other elementary schools.

The building was next used as a teenage recreation center for African Americans.

Segregation still existed in the military during the Second World War as would be seen firsthand in Vincennes. During the major Wabash River flood of 1943, white servicemen from George Field, who helped in the flood fight, were billeted at the USO Club at 19 N. Fourth St. Forty-three African American servicemen were headquartered at the Vincennes YMCA and were later housed at the Dunbar School

Later in 1943, the former Dunbar School was converted into a USO Club for African Americans from George Field, having been leased from the school board for that purpose. The club in the Dunbar building was dedicated on Oct. 10, 1943, and officially closed on Jan. 1, 1946.

The building was next used for storage and for lodge meetings. Although it remained public school property, Dunbar gradually fell into a state of disrepair.

In Sept. 1957, the 80-year-old building was inspected by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which ordered extensive renovations, including all new wiring and a new roof. The renovation work needed was seen as cost prohibitive and it was recommended that the building be torn down.

Later that year, the school board received bids for demolition of the structure. Wendell Prout was awarded the contract and the school was razed in 1958.

Brian Spangle can be reached at brianrspangle60@outlook.com. His latest book, Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.

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