Local Black History – Panel 3 – Education 1

Year

2023

Artist

Keith Goodson

Location

Baker Center School
311 E. Charlotte Avenue

Size

104′ w x 8.5′ h

Mural Creation Sponsors

2023:

Sushila Cherian
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

Penny Stiffler

The Community

Panel 3 – Education 1

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.

Photo of the first class of Black children of Baker Academy – Circa Fall 1903 – Courtesy of the Blanchard House Museum

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.

John Reddick & Lucilla Allen Rora (teachers) and Benjamin Baker – Courtesy of the Blanchard House Museum

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.