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Edna residents recall days at historic elementary school

By Melissa Crowe
March 14, 2014 at 7:04 p.m.
Updated March 13, 2014 at 10:14 p.m.

Edna Fire Marshall Loyd "Buster" Chase walks through what remains of George Washington Carver Elementary, which was damaged in  a fire Thursday night. Chase and the State Fire Marshal's Office are investigating the cause of the fire, which remained unknown Friday.

EDNA - The Edna Fire Department and the State Fire Marshal's Office are investigating a blaze that destroyed the east wing of George Washington Carver School, said Edna Fire Marshal Loyd Chase.

Although Chase would not say whether the fire was being investigated as an arson, he called it "very suspicious."

Residents and former students were in disbelief Friday as a portion of the campus, at 1128 Martin Luther King Drive, was reduced to ashes and char.

Harold Wilkins, 37, of Edna, has organized the annual Juneteenth celebration at the old school for the past five years.

"I just don't see why somebody would do that to such a historical place," he said. "It isn't about where to host Juneteenth; it's about the memories of all that stuff just going down in flames. I'm just a small part of that - there's people here, and this was their school."

Although portions of the campus had previously been vandalized, Wilkins said the campus and adjacent park were "a getaway" for residents who played soccer, basketball and brought their families to the park nearby.

Jermarka Walker, 37, of Dallas, said it's a major loss to the community.

He grew up in the neighborhood around the school. His father was a running back on the football team, the Carver Tigers, when the school was segregated. His aunt, Joyce Wells, was also a student there before integration.

"That's one of the No. 1 spots for people in our community," he said. "It meant more to me than just going to school there for three years; it was part of the community. It's a big loss, and a lot of people are upset."

From kindergarten through second grade in the early 1980s, Walker attended school at George Washington Carver before moving on to Austin Elementary and then junior high. Through it all, the school remained an important place in his life.

"That's where we'd go to play basketball - we didn't have iPads and Nintendos, so we'd go and play basketball at the courts," Walker said. "Every weekend, it was packed - blacks, whites, Hispanics - everyone came to play."

The fire was reported about 8:50 p.m. Thursday. Firefighters from Edna, LaWard, Ganado, Lolita, Vanderbilt and El Campo assisted in extinguishing the flames.

Across from the school on Mexico Street, Edward Platt, 64, of Kinston, N.C., witnessed the fire while visiting family who live nearby.

"We were the first ones who saw it," Platt said. "We went inside and said, 'Dial 911; there's a fire at the school.'"

His brother, Earl Platt, 63, also of Kinston, said the fire didn't burn like a standard wood fire.

"It just went 'Woosh!' like something else was burning," he said.

Chase, the Edna fire marshal, said his investigation could take several days to determine the origin of the fire because the facility was fully engulfed in flames Thursday night. Firefighters did not clear the scene until about 2 a.m., he said.

Because of the building's tar roof, investigators cannot use dogs to help find the cause of the fire.

"It may be undetermined for a while," Chase said.

This is the first major structure fire in the city in several months.

The school, completed in 1954, served as the only black high school in Jackson County until 1966, when the Edna school district, under pressure from the federal government, integrated its schools.

The campus was expanded over time and was eventually used as an elementary school until the mid-1990s.

The George Washington Carver Community Center bought the property in October 2008 for $100 from the Edna school district to use it as a space for social services.

Still reeling from the loss of the oldest standing school building in Edna, Walker said he plans to drive back home from Dallas this weekend to make sure everything is OK at the school where so many residents spent their childhoods.

"Hopefully, they get to the bottom of it and find out what was going on," Walker said. "There's been a lot of vandalism out there. There's no power, no water; it had to be arson."



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