BARTOW — The former Union Academy High School — currently Union Academy Magnet Middle School — received a historic marker Saturday, July 26, recognizing the school that started in 1897.
The marker commemorates the legacy of the school that served black students in southwest Polk County during segregation -- a school that started as an elementary school and later, in 1923, created new education opportunities for black students in Polk by adding grades nine through 12.
As a high school, Union Academy boasts the first black high-school graduate in Polk County — Lela Burkett — and, from that time through its final high school graduating class in 1969, it came to have an impressive list of alumni.
“The school boasts countless honored alumni, attaining achievements in education, politics, medicine, business, military, sports, religious and other arenas,” said Lloyd Harris, local historian and member of the Polk County Historical Committee.
“We were told by the teachers — they poured it on us — [that] if you’re a superstar here, you’re average,” said Hugh Grimes, a 1971 graduate of Bartow High School who became county judge and later a circuit judge. “They would tell us you could accomplish anything and we believed them.”
James Stephens — who was known by the nickname “Wolfman” — served as principal from 1938 until Union and Summerlin High merged in 1969.
“Wolfman was a strong disciplinarian,” said Ken Riley, a 1965 Union Academy graduate and current president of the Union Academy High School Alumni Association.
Riley played for the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL, was the athletic director at Florida A&M and was a counselor at Winter Haven High School.
The discipline and drive to success commonly described at Union Academy translated into a number of well-known graduates.
“Unique is the record of the Union Academy athletic department, fielding 12 graduates to the National Football League: Ken Riley, James Battle, Marshall Bush, Leroy Hardee, Major Hazelton, Nathaniel James, Lavon Johnson, Lewis Johnson, Alton Lavan, Sam Silas, Jerry Simmons and Donald Smith,” said Harris.
The ceremony was a partnership between the Union Academy High School Alumni Association and the Polk County Historical Commission.
The historical marker is the 26th placed by the historical commission’s marker program. The school is at 1795 E. Wabash St. in Bartow. It has been at that location since 1955. The marker’s unveiling Friday was part of the Union Academy’s alumni association’s annual reunion weekend.
History of the school
In the ceremony, Harris relayed the history of the school, which included a number of locations before it was placed at its current site in 1955. Before then it operated as a Rosenwald school just west of the current campus, on land donated by Jackson Longworth, the grandfather of current Bartow City Commissioner Leo Longworth, who graduated from Union Academy High in 1967.
With its first class there on Sept. 14, 1897, Harris said the school was the center of the town’s black community.
“Union Academy in collaboration with families, churches and the community, was a focal point of society, education and cultural development to the African American youth of Bartow, and the nearby communities which it served,” Harris said.
He said the school sought to build moral character, leaders, literacy, knowledge, domestic science, vocational skills and athletics to the “betterment, success and hope of Bartow and Polk County’s” black residents.
Union was not the first all-black school in Bartow. The first dates back to the late 1860s. However, in 1896, with the closing of the Brittsville School (in 1895) and the Bartow Colored School, representatives from three churches petitioned the City of Bartow for a new school.
City leaders approved the move and Bishop Thomas Lomax donated property on 5th Avenue for the building. It had four classrooms for 120 students and was named Union to honor a black school in Gainesville that opened in 1867.
In 1907, the school added eight grades and in 1923 the school added a secondary department, bringing it to high school status. In 1929, Julius Rosenwald — co-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Company — gave $2,600 to help build a new Union Academy — this one with room for 17 teachers and about 250 students. Another $40,000 in tax money was used to finance the building.
Rosenwald schools were built across the country to educate black children and in Polk County those schools included Florence Villa Training School, Oakland School in Haines City, Fruitlands Institute in Lake Alfred and Union Academy.
In 1936 the school became a centralized elementary and high school, serving students not only from Bartow, but from Fort Meade, Brewster, Bradley, Pierce and Mulberry.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act mandated public school desegregation and by 1969 Union Academy and Summerlin Institute were combined and named Bartow High School. Union’s slogan of “Home of the Champions” remained.
Among other well-known alumni include Dr. Ossian Sweet, J.J. Corbet, Claude Woodruff, Dr. James J. Gardener, Ruye M. Hamilton, George Gause, Judge Hugh Grimes, Rufus Stephens, and Herbert Dixon.
Polk County Superintendent of School Jacqueline Byrd’s marked the significance of the unveiling by saying, “The struggles were real, but the rewards were great. Today is a great day, not only for scholarship, not only for 50 years, but putting a marker down to say we are here, we are not going anywhere.”
Union Academy’s last graduating class was 50 years ago in 1969.
Harris further noted, in the words of 1942 graduate Bobbie Mitchell McKennie, “Students here built lifelong values by developing positive self-worth, a strong sense of self-respect and moral integrity.”