Baker Center School
311 E. Charlotte Avenue
104′ w x 8.5′ h
Mural Creation Sponsors
In Memory of Dr. JV Cherian
Congregational United Church of Christ
Kelly & Pete Gaylord
The Patterson Foundation
Saint Mary Baptist Church
In Memory of Pastor Isaac Thomas Jr
Community Foundation of Sarasota County
Shively Charitable Foundation
Lt. Col. Scot & Jill Shively
Panel 3 – Education 1
To listen to an audio presentation of the history captured in this panel, click on this video.
Dan Smith Sr. moved to Punta Gorda with the railroad in 1886. He settled here and became a leader in the African-American community as it grew. The 1900 DeSoto County census listed a total of 197 families in PG with 47 being African American. It included 48 school age African American children aged 6 to 16. Since these children were not allowed to attend schools with the white children, Albert Gilchrist, by then a prominent civic leader, wanted to improve their education.
Gilchrist and M.F. Gibbons of Charlotte Harbor appointed Smith to the DeSoto County Board of Education and then worked to get the first “colored” schoolhouse established in 1902. It was a two-room building on East Marion Avenue “near the beach” at the foot of Cooper Street. Gilchrist sent Smith to an educator’s convention in New Orleans to recruit a black teacher for the school. There Smith met Benjamin Joshua Baker, a 31 year old bachelor, and convinced him to come to Punta Gorda to teach.
Benjamin Baker was born in Live Oak, Florida in 1872, and his parents were former slaves who taught him to read and write before a segregated school was established there when he was 10 years old. With only 9 years of formal education, he passed the teacher’s state exam at Lake City by the age of 19. He taught in “colored” schools in Suwanee County for 12 years before coming to Punta Gorda.
Upon arriving in Punta Gorda, Baker established the “colored” school serving grades 1-8 and was the only teacher for some time. Dan Smith and Alex Stephens, both adults, enrolled in the first class in order to have the school meet the required quota of pupils.
By 1921, enrollment outgrew the original school and a new four-room school was built at the corner of Mary Street and Showalter Avenue. The school’s official name was the Punta Gorda Negro School but it became known as Baker Academy, honoring Baker, who was by then the principal.
Baker taught for 50 years and took a personal interest in every student, giving a new Bible to every graduate. He is pictured here along with teachers John Reddick and Lucilla Allen Rora. He had to retire in 1940 due to health reasons which was said to have broken his heart. He died within two years at the age of 68.
This is the history we pay tribute to in Panel 3 of the new Local Black History mural featuring educator Benjamin Baker.