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Special event celebrates the achievements and the people of Central High School
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Among the icons of “old” Fort Wayne — the city of four or five decades ago, boasting a downtown bustling with commerce, nightlife and industry — one institution looms particularly large: Central High School. The institution closed in 1971, but the building is still there (now home to the Anthis Career Center), and it’s an imposing structure, a testament to the school’s almost monolithic reputation in its day as an academic and athletic powerhouse.
And to hear Bryant Rozier tell it, Central’s legacy remains strong to this day, some 40 + years after the school closed. Rozier’s design and production company, Scrambled Egg(s), is partnering with the African / African American Historical Society and Museum to celebrate the legacy of the school, reviving the dormant Central High School All-Year Festival on April 25.
To mark the event, Scrambled Egg(s) is also releasing a book called What If Central High School Never Closed? that features interviews from Central High School alumni and friends.
The event will also include a play-by-play recreation of the 1960 State Championship semi-final, a nail-biter of a game that saw Central lose by one point to a team from East Chicago. The original game was recorded without sound; using interviews with players on the ’60 team, Rozier is creating play-by-play commentary, with assistance from 21 Alive’s Kent Hormann.
The project began as a sort of “labor of love” for Rozier. Rozier himself is too young to have experienced Central, but his father was an alumnist, a star basketball player and part of the Class of ’61. While working on a different project with the African / African American Historical Society and Museum, Rozier mentioned that his father had played basketball at Central. Dr John Aden, the director of the Museum, told Rozier about the museum’s huge collection of Central yearbooks. “They just happened to have my dad's senior year,” says Rozier. “I had never seen that book before... He died from diabetes, so seeing him at age 17 was transformative. My father was always proud of his Central roots. With this project, I’ve learned more about why my father raised me and my five sisters the way he did. I don’t know where his world view was formed, but it was definitely nurtured and encouraged at Central. I wanted to share that feeling with other people. I couldn't be the only person to feel that way.”
“It kind of just evolved from there,” Rozier continues. “Everything we've developed has been from a historical perspective, preserving the legacy of the school and the community around it.”
Certainly not. As Rozier writes, the thousands of friendships created at Central and the achievements of the school in its prime are the stuff of area folklore and legend, and the interviews in the book make a strong case that that’s more than just nostalgia talking.
Dr Aden says that though Rozier did the bulk of the interviews with alumni, his involvement with the project has been eye-opening. “Central High School graduates are fiercely loyal to this school. Fiercely. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “I would also say that the Central graduates who have spoken to me reflect on their own labor histories in powerful ways; they recall how what they learned at that school translated into work opportunities for them and their families. These former students strike me as very independent.”
One of the interviewees in the book, muffler shop owner Albert “Butch” Thomas (’64) credits Central with first teaching him body work, and developing his work ethic. “Central taught me a lot of things: to look beyond today, to prepare yourself for the future by encouraging us to stay on course. Central taught me to be anything I wanted, that the road is out there to do whatever you wanted. Central had its people that were doing the wrong thing, you know… But we were also taught...if you hang with dogs, you get fleas. Whatever you want is here.”
”Central taught me to be a man, taught me how to respect others,” Thomas continues. “The memories of Central will be there ‘til I die. And prejudices? We didn’t have any black teachers at Central, but the teachers were good. People say white people don’t want you to be doing this or that, but I couldn’t say that about our teachers.”
Thomas’s comment, as well as other comments in the book, touches on what Rozier says is a “common misconception” about Central, that it was a “black” school. But Rozier points out that the school wasn’t majority black until just a few years before it closed. “Many of Central's athletes were black,” he says. “So if people saw a bunch of black kids in the paper, winning everything, it must be, from their POV, a black school. It wasn't. It had always been integrated.”
This aspect of the school comes through when perusing the African / African American Historical Society and Museum’s collection of yearbooks. “What struck me was the degree to which there were African Americans and Anglo-Americans in the same shots, working together during one of our country’s most turbulent times,” says Dr Aden. “When you talk to these former students, they are proud that they had friendships across the Color Line, and that these have withstood the test of time. But beyond the aspect of Integration in American secondary education, (the yearbooks) also highlight the tenacity of Central’s graduates. Central Students seem to have felt that they were underdogs, but fully capable of succeeding. And there is great camaraderie, too.”
“The other aspect of the yearbooks that I love personally is that you can see some of the important historical personalities who still have influence in our City today,” adds Dr Aden. “You see the Helmkes, for instance, or the future owner of DeHaven Chevrolet. You see one aspect of the city’s development, as it was unfolding at that time. That’s priceless.”
Central closed in 1971. The official reasons for the closure are a little confusing and even contradictory. “Graduates point out that the original arguments went that Central High was alleged to be ‘overcrowded,’ and that the school was ‘too successful especially in athletics’,” says Dr Aden, pointing out that the overcrowding argument is one put forward on South Side’s High School’s Wikipedia page. “But (Central) was experiencing a drop in enrollments when it closed.”
Another reason for closure was that the facility was in need of serious remodeling. “The official reason for the closing was that the school was dilapidated,” Rozer says. “But the building, in the Fall of 1971, was slotted for a vocational training school. How can it be in such disrepair if it was used as a school three months later, with a plan in place for its use well before Central closed?”
“The fact is...they didn't realize what they had,” Rozier adds. “It was a failure of not appreciating a strong asset, of not understanding the school's value to a community and the city. It could have provided a strong anchor for downtown development a lot sooner. The school closed in part because of a lack of imagination.”
While the book What If Central High School Never Closed? explores the closure issue in more detail and addresses some of the uglier aspects of the era, the event it self is simply a celebration of the school, the people, and the time. The 2015 Central High Festival is a revival of an event that used to take place regularly — the last one happened in 2002 or ‘03, organized by Margaret DuBois, Carrie Blackman, and Juanita Macbee from the Central class of ’67. Rozier is excited to play a part in reviving the tradition, and of sharing what he sees as a remarkable story. “Central was like the New York Yankees of schools,” Rozier says. “It was admired and hated for being the best at everything. Central was strong academically and athletically; it consistently competed at the top level at everything. What was Central like ‘back in the day’? Well, we're producing a festival, with enough material and story for multiple events, to tell you what it was like back in the day.”
The 2015 Central High Festival
April 25th, 2015
McMillen Park Community Center, from 10 AM – 4 PM.
A banquet dinner will follow event in the same venue, and will be held 6 PM – 8 PM. There will be vendors, a display from the African / African American Historical Society Museum, with the participation of Central High School graduates and the school’s extended family, and much more.
There will be a small exhibition from the AAAHSM (including research and interviews from our What If Central Never Closed? theme) at the event), merchandise vendors from across the city, a Kids Zone, a photo booth and a video testimonial booth.
The McMillen Park Community Center is located at 3901 Abbott Street in McMillen Park, in the former home of the McMillen Ice Arena.
For tickets and event info, visit centralhighschoolfest.com or call the African / African American Historical Society Museum at 260.420.0765.
Also on Facebook at facebook.com/CentralHighSchoolFest