What once was a beacon of academic and athletic prowess for the African-American community in Gary is now one of Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered sites. Gary Roosevelt High School suffered a series of busted pipes last February that closed the building’s doors for good and now city leaders and alumni are trying to save the historic landmark from falling into further disrepair. “The city can’t let it go. They should never let it go because this is history,” one Gary resident said.
Gary, Indiana in the 1920s was a booming city of steel, even nationally recognized for its innovative public schools. But not everyone was welcome in certain classrooms and when the city attempted to integrate a few Black students to its all-White Emerson High School in 1927, it ended in disaster.
“White students walked out of Emerson after attempts of integration and the school corporation in reaction decided to build this school and then it went on to again be a beacon of Black excellence in the city of Gary,” said Brad Miller, director of Indiana Landmarks Northwest.
Roosevelt High School was built in 1930 and it was one of only three all African-American high schools in the state of Indiana, a source of pride for many residents in Gary.
“This was our center of culture and many of the city people that were in positions of authority or let’s say influence were Rooseveltians,” said Judith Mead, president of the National Roosevelt Alumni Association. “But this school was always considered a sacred spot.”
But the sacred spot has fallen on hard times. A faulty heating system coupled with the polar vortex in 2019 caused a series of pipes to burst and it was the final straw that closed the 90-year-old historical building for good.
Miller says the cleanup of the water damage and mold to get the building back to where it was would cost between $8 million and $15 million alone.
“From the school district’s perspective, we’re not planning on opening the school for a school district,” said Paige McNulty, interim emergency manager for the Gary Community School Corp. “But I don’t see that the school district would ever use it for a school again.”
Gary Mayor Jerome Prince is all too familiar with the rich history of Roosevelt. And in an effort to rebuild the city, and perhaps Roosevelt, he’s turned to Gary’s most famous family of singers for a little help.
“I’ve had at least a few conversations with members of the Jackson family who have a renewed interest in helping to reimagine, as we call it, the city of Gary, which includes at least some desire to help facilitate a renovation on the Roosevelt school site,” said Prince. “My primary focus is to rebuild the city.”
While the school undoubtedly served as point of pride for Gary’s Black community in its heyday, its strong alumni base is determined to keep the Roosevelt legacy alive for future generations.
“We are interested in being involved in whatever happens to the building,” said Mead. “We stand ready to assist them and mainly be some part of the decision making.”