Home Commentary Discovering Black Diamonds: Love of history uncovers black history of Pensacola school

Discovering Black Diamonds: Love of history uncovers black history of Pensacola school

Historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson is known as the father of Black History Month, initially created in 1926 as Negro History Week, to honor the accomplishments of African-Americans. Dr. Woodson’s organization, the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, selected “The Crisis in Black Education” as the 2017 theme for Black History Month.


The topic perfectly complimented a recently shared little-known piece of Pensacola history.

Earlier this month, Pensacola historian Teníadé Broughton asked friends on her Facebook page if they knew that Brown-Barge Middle School was named in honor of two African-American women. The query was in preparation for a future post on the Black Pensacola Facebook page, founded by Broughton to share stories, photos, and recollections of the Pensacola African-American experience.

Mrs. Gertrude Brown. (Special to The Pulse)

Broughton’s post received more than 100 comments and was shared dozens of times, primarily by incensed alumni who wondered why they were never told about the school’s inspiring namesakes.

Brown-Barge Middle School honors two African-American educators, Gertrude Smith Brown and Evannah “Eva” Jones Barge. The school was named for them in 1955, during an era in American history when racism, sexism, and discrimination prevailed across the country. Brown-Barge opened as a segregated elementary school one year after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which made separate public schools unconstitutional.

Alumnae Sherika Hinton wrote, “I attended BBMS from 1991-1994 — I was unaware that the founders were black until you mentioned it … as a little black girl attending a magnet school … that would be something I would remember seeing … women that ‘looked like me.’”

Broughton requested help finding photos of the two women. Brown-Barge principal Joseph Snyder has been collecting school history for more than a year to share with students and staff. He shared his research with the staff when he became principal.

“There’s meaning behind Brown-Barge Middle School,” he said. “I want the staff and students to keep sight of that fact.”

Mrs. Eva Jones. (Special to The Pulse)

When Broughton received the photos, she encouraged eighth grade Brown-Barge student Grace Stanley to conduct more research about the school’s namesakes. Knowing Grace’s appreciation for history, Principal Snyder offered Grace his research to put together a new presentation for future Brown-Barge students. Grace had represented Brown Barge in the Escambia County History Fair in sixth and seventh grades, advancing to the state finals each year. He was confident that she would give the project due diligence.

Studying history provides students with lessons from the past that can instill cultural pride, and increase empathy. Most importantly, that research can increase awareness and reduce stereotypes. The current Brown-Barge Middle School new student orientation states, “Brown-Barge Elementary School originally was an African-American school, supported and staffed by African-American adults, who were passionate about improving the future generations in the Pensacola community.”

That same level of care and commitment has continued.

The research provided by Principal Snyder included a pamphlet created in 2002 by local historian and retired Brown-Barge teacher Martin de Porres Lewis titled, “The History of the School of Community of Brown-Barge.” Lewis wrote that Gertrude E. Brown was born on October 28, 1883 in Molino. Brown, born to Samuel Smith and Mary Hicks, had nine brothers and sisters. She attended Escambia County schools and Florida A&M University where she received both bachelors and masters degrees in education.

Brown enjoyed traveling throughout the United States and Europe before marrying her husband Isaac. Brown spent more than a half-century in education and was a member of numerous organizations, retiring as principal of A.M. DeVaughn Elementary School in 1954. She died on August 31, 1980.

Eva Barge had two siblings — a sister, Edith and a brother, Avery Jones, who served as one of the first principals of Booker T. Washington High School. She married Silas Barge, owner of Barge Funeral Home, and is believed to have taught in Century prior to teaching at A.M. DeVaughn, where she became principal.

Barge was a community leader, activist, served as music minister and was heavily involved in her church, Allen AME Chapel. She died in 1950, thirty years earlier than Brown.

Willie Brown was the first principal of Brown-Barge Middle School in Pensacola, Fla. (Special to The Pulse)

The first Brown-Barge school was established on Fairfield Drive on what was then the edge of town. The school’s first principal was Willie Brown, Sr., an African-American man, who served from 1955 until his death in 1969.

In 1987, the Escambia County School Board voted to redistrict middle schools, establishing Brown-Barge as a learning center for sixth through eighth-grade students. It became a magnet school in the fall of 1988, with the objective of providing “a solid foundation of basic and exploratory academic skills to a student population of able learners, using an interdisciplinary teaching approach.”

Brown-Barge received a multi-million-dollar grant that completely transformed the school, overseen by former principal Camille Barr. The school’s integrated curriculum model, requiring student organization and participation in numerous group projects, is not for every student. The Brown-Barge learning methodology promotes acquisition, application, and simulation. Multiple classes are taught with a single centralized theme, referred to as a “stream.”

The success of Brown-Barge Middle School proves the difference that leadership, financial support, and exceptional teaching can make. It is the only “A” rated Escambia County Middle School by the Florida Department of Education, followed by a “B” grade for Ransom Middle School, another middle school named for an African-American, Earl Ransom, who donated the property in Cantonment.

As the successful transformation of Brown-Barge Middle School proves, an influx of financial support, technology, and a complete curriculum overhaul can transform a school. It must be promoted and replicated to change the pervasiveness of failing schools within the county.

Without a doubt, though, Brown and Barge would consider Escambia County’s “school to prison pipeline” to be the most critical current “Crisis in Black Education.”

Escambia County is a state and national leader in the disproportionate incarceration of minority youth. Radical change is critical to protect tomorrow’s future leaders. Love of history uncovered the contributions of Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Barge, black diamonds whose legacy has only grown stronger while hidden.

Since learning about Brown-Barge’s origins, Grace has shared the information at several events within the community. On February 27, she gave a presentation about Brown and Barge at the Transition Foundation Black History Month celebration held at the Voices of Pensacola Multicultural Center. The event also featured her brother, Christian Stanley, who won first place in the Individual Performance (Elementary Division) of the Escambia County History Fair, presenting “John Sunday Jr., the Richest Man in the South.”

Pearl Perkins, a direct descendant of Sunday, attended the event. Christian was both honored and self-conscious to make his presentation to a Sunday descendant, but Perkins told him that he did a wonderful job, encouraging him to continue researching and presenting.  Perkins blessed attendees with anecdotes after the presentations. She noted that in the 19th century, schools in Pensacola were initially only given numbers. Lewis’ Brown-Barge brochure confirmed that fact, noting that Booker T. Washington High School was known as “Pensacola High School  No. 3” when Mrs. Barnes’ brother served as its first Principal.

Additionally, a 1925-1926 public school directory was posted to Broughton’s Facebook page listing Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Barge as “colored” Escambia County teachers. Eva Barge taught at “School No. 101” on West Belmont Street, and Gertrude Brown taught at “School No. 103,” later known as the John A. Gibson School, on West Gadsden Street. The directory also listed A.M. DeVaughn as principal of another “School No. 101,” located on East Chase Street. DeVaughn eventually became the namesake of the school where both Brown and Barge served as principals.

Grace will revise and expand the Brown-Barge new student presentation, to include the likenesses and biographies of both Brown and Barge. Anyone with additional information about the school namesakes are encouraged to bring artifacts and information to the school to create a display honoring the school namesakes.

To truly honor the legacies of Brown and Barge, and reverse the 2017 Black History Month theme, “Crisis in Black Education,” there must be a renewed commitment to leveraging the teaching methodologies, influence, and impact of these outstanding educators throughout the country.

Thankfully, these “Black Diamonds,” have been exposed, never again to be covered.