G.W. Carver’s past and future meet at groundbreaking event for new school | Education

As the gold-painted shovels were packed away after the groundbreaking ceremony for G.W. Carver Middle School, Ed Echols looked hopefully over the muddy field of the once and future school site.

Echols grew up at the school, then known as Carver High School, and he joined a mass protest after the segregated Black school was closed in 1970 and its students shipped across town.

As a longtime Waco Independent School District teacher and coach, he knew the campus as an East Waco community anchor for decades until the school burned in July last year.

“When I saw Carver burn my heart kind of sunk,” he said. “This is my childhood, my heritage. … When you see your home is gone, what do you do? It takes a big piece out of your heart.”

Echols was among a throng of Carver High School alumni who celebrated the groundbreaking Friday for a new $73.2 million school that will house up to 1,060 students when it opens in August next year.

Alumni are working with Waco ISD and its architects to memorialize Carver’s rich history in the new building, and they are calling for memorabilia from the 1950s and 1960s to display there.

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“When I saw the rendition of it I just swelled with pride, that they weren’t going to throw this school away and leave it empty,” Echols said. “They’re bringing us back again. I’m ready to see it come to life.”

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Former students and future students turn dirt at the groundbreaking for G.W. Carver Middle School on Friday.

For now the 14-acre site at 1601 J.J. Flewellen Drive is a barren field, with only remnants of tree roots, pipes and charred studs mixed in the mud.

But middle-schoolers on hand at the ceremony Friday looked forward to a gleaming, modern school on the site, which will also have an eight-lane competition track.

“I look forward to playing my trombone in the new band hall,” sixth grader A’Marianna Davis told the crowd. “I anticipate eating good food in a cafeteria that’s large enough to seat all the eighth graders.”

Since last year’s fire, Carver has merged with Indian Spring Middle School at the Indian Spring campus, which will close when the East Waco site reopens.

Waco ISD Board President Angela Tekell said the new school will be a vast improvement over the old building, which dates to 1956.

She said Superintendent Susan Kincannon was determined to upgrade school facilities, and when a facilities study committee toured Carver, officials were “embarrassed” by its condition.

Carver had major leaks, inadequate bathrooms and unreliable climate control, she said.

“Even before the fire, G.W. Carver was a priority for the facilities committee and in turn the school board,” Tekell said.

She said district officials agree that “every student in Waco ISD should have a safe, modern school regardless of what neighborhood they live in,” a line that drew applause from a crowd of about 150.

CORE Construction, a Frisco-based contractor, is overseeing the project as “construction manager-at-risk,” with a design from O’Connell Robertson.

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Ruth Jackson, who attended Carver High School and is spearheading an effort to memorialize the old school at the new G.W. Carver Middle School, speaks at the school groundbreaking Friday.

Ruth Jackson, who heads the G.W. Carver Alumni Historical Committee, said the new campus inspires her and reminds her of the old Carver school song: “Always in our hearts the Panther spirit will stay.”

“That’s kind of what I’m feeling right now,” she said. “That Carver spirit is all over me.”

Carver was built as a segregated all-Black facility two years after Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was illegal, Kincannon pointed out.

“Two years after the court held that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place in public education, the school districts in our community were doubling down on a deeply unjust system that denied students of color their full share of opportunity,” she said.

Yet Carver, then part of La Vega Independent School District, was a source of pride for students, parents and the Black community, alumni said. It had a strong sports program and a band that won a grand prize at Expo 67, an international exposition held in Montreal.

Jane Williams, class of 1962, said even before she transferred to Carver from another segregated Waco school, she knew the system was unjust and sent the message that Black people were “less than.”

“But our teachers would not allow it, just as our parents would not allow it,” Williams said. “They always instilled in us the idea that we had the same qualities as any other human being.”

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Waco ISD Superintendent Susan Kincannon speaks at the groundbreaking for G.W. Carver Middle School.

On Aug. 24, 1970, a federal judge in Austin agreed to La Vega’s plan to close Carver and bus its students to La Vega High School.

At the time, Echols was practicing with the Carver football team, preparing for school to start. During practice, his coach called the team together and announced, “Tomorrow you report to La Vega.”

Carver students, shocked to be in a majority white high school, soon came to believe they were being treated unfairly in class and on the field. Echols said he and most of the rest of the Black football players walked off the team because they were not being given opportunities.

As dissatisfaction grew, he joined an organized walkout that lasted two weeks. Black students walked back to the empty Carver gym and planned their strategy, he said.

News reports from the time suggest several reasons for the walkout, including the dismissal of a popular Black coach, who was later reinstated.

Echols said that once the majority-Black basketball team won a district championship, the attitude of white students become more accepting.

In 1971, La Vega and Waco ISDs worked out a territory swap that placed East Waco and its 1,300 students into Waco ISD, though a sizeable Black population remained at La Vega.

Jackson, the alumni leader, said Carver High School sent “some of the most intelligent, wonderful and dynamic people” into the world, and she believes the new middle school will carry on the tradition.

“Today begins a new legacy,” she said, recalling the myth of the phoenix rising from the ashes.

“Whether you’re young or old I think you can agree we’re standing on the threshold of a phoenix and great new beginning.”