When several hundred intellectually gifted middle school youngsters return to class at Union Academy Middle Magnet School and its International Baccalaureate curriculum this month, they will be the 122nd class to be educated at a school with one of the most diverse and remarkable histories in Polk County.
Late in July, Polk’s 26th historical monument was unveiled on the UA campus, listing highlights in the school’s history.
Drawing heavily on information from the UA Alumni Assn., individual graduates of the school, and others with detailed knowledge of the school, Lloyd Harris, Bartow’s premier historian, traced the history of Union Academy.
That history dates back to 1897, with the laying of the cornerstone on Aug. 19 and the first day of classes on Sept. 14 at what began as a four-room school. A two-day community celebration marked the cornerstone laying.
UA succeeded a few short-lived schools for minority students in Bartow, and was opened at the request of several churches to the city commission that it build a school for minority students.
In 1923, UA became the first minority school in Polk County to add high-school grades to its curriculum.
In 1929, UA qualified for funding as a Rosenwald school, a program funded by Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears Roebuck, at the urging of Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute.
Some 5,000 schools, shops, and teacher homes throughout the South were partially funded by Rosenwald. Of the five Rosenwald schools built in Polk County, only UA remains.
Over the years, the growing Union Academy served students from Fort Meade, Homeland, Brewster, Bradley, Pierce, Mulberry, Agricola, Lake Garfield, Nichols, Gordonville, Fuller Heights, and Brittsville, as well as Bartow.
In Bartow’s post-World War II population boom, newly-abandoned frame barracks buildings from Bartow Army Airfield were moved to the UA campus for use as classrooms.
Of the many community and education leaders who left their imprint on Union Academy, none can compare with James E. Stephens, principal of the school for 32 years.
Known as a stern disciplinarian, he was addressed by his students, faculty and community members of both races as “Professor Stephens” — or simply as “Prof.”
Behind his back, his students called him “Wolfman,” a nickname which is remembered with fondness and perhaps a degree of respect by today’s alumni.
When Polk County schools were integrated, UA was given a new name and a new mission: Golfview Middle School, a one-grade school for all Bartow seventh grade students, both black and white.
The change in name was a thinly disguised effort to mask the school’s historically minority status.
In 1975, at the urging of community leaders of both races, the Union Academy name was restored.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. In the months leading up to Polk County’s school integration, he met several times with Professor Stephens to discuss at length what to expect when students of both races encountered their new relationships. In Frisbie’s opinion, James Stephens and J.J. Corbett — the first UA teacher to seek assignment to Bartow High School and later elected to the school board — were the preeminent leaders in the harmonious integration of Bartow schools.)