A red brick, tattered building sits in the heart of the Black community in Newport. The large facility, built in 1923, was the Newport Colored School, later named W.F. Branch High School.
Black students from the region — including Pocahontas, Wynne, and McCrory — traveled long hours to attend. Some would wake at 4 a.m. and walk for miles to catch a bus that would take hours more to reach the school. At one time, it was the largest school dedicated to Black students in the region.
The school officially closed in 1970 and has been used in other endeavors through the years, but Latasha Wakefield-Robinson and her husband, Roderick Robinson, told Talk Business & Politics they plan to renovate the 35,000-square-foot building during the next 18 months.
They want to create a Black history museum, community center, hotel, medical clinic and office space within the old school, Roderick said. The couple has formed a nonprofit group, Bringing Resources and Navigating Community Help (BRANCH), to revitalize the space.
“Its main purpose is to bring tourists to Newport. … We want to teach Black history here. We want to show how Black history ties into all of history,” he said.
The school building was built in 1923, but the Newport Colored School had been in existence for many years prior. The earliest mention of the school was in the Arkansas Gazette, and it was reported that “the Colored School in Newport is the finest and best arranged school of its kind north of the Arkansas River,” according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
As students trickled in from neighboring communities, a larger building was needed. When the new school was finished it had 22 classrooms, an auditorium, kitchen and other spaces that sat on a 4-acre lot. The school mascot was a pirate, and the school colors were purple and gold. It was part of the Newport School District.
W.F. Branch served as the school’s principal during this period. At first, only students in grades 1 through 6 attended, but through the years the classes expanded to include junior high and high school students. Branch retired in 1948, and the school was renamed in his honor. When it first opened, a handful of students would graduate each year, but by the 1960s that number had ballooned to 130 or more.
During the 1960s, integration began in schools in the region. The Hoxie School District, a less than one hour drive from Newport, integrated in 1955. The Newport School District opted to allow students to attend either school to start the integration process.
The district came under heavy scrutiny when residents learned how much more the white teachers made compared to Black teachers with similar education and experience. As the pressure mounted, the school district began moving teachers within the two schools and more Black students entered the previously all-white Newport High School. By 1970, Branch was closed.
Branch’s basketball team was dominant through the years, but Black athletes were not allowed to compete or were given limited opportunities once integration was instituted, Roderick said. It would be years before Black basketball players dominated in Newport again.
Many of the traditions of the previous school — its song, mascot and colors — were not carried over in any way to the newly integrated school. It was reported that many former Branch students were upset by this, and a few dropped out of school because of the loss of their school culture.
The building has been used for several purposes over the years. It housed the Willa Black Daycare, and when Roderick was a child he went there. It was fitting, he said. His grandmother was a student at Branch. The building stopped being used in 2007 and fell into disrepair.
Latasha ran for Newport mayor in 2018, and part of her motivation was to improve economic conditions for minorities in the community, she said. Newport has a population of about 7,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It has steadily declined in recent years. About 21% of the population of the city, which serves as the seat for Jackson County, is Black. The median income for the city is $30,400, well below the state average of $47,000. More than 27% of residents in Newport live at or near the federal poverty line, and a majority of the Black community are impoverished.
The Robinsons were spurred into action in May 2020 when George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers. The killing touched off a series of marches and protests nationwide with many decrying police violence toward Blacks. The couple formed the nonprofit group and raised about $100,000 to buy Branch and begin the renovation process, Latasha said.
Walking the halls of the dilapidated school was surreal, Roderick said. Old annuals, school records, desks, chairs and other implements littered the long-forgotten classrooms. Windows were broken. Walls needed to be replaced. Several houses had to be demolished and at least 65 trees needed to be removed, Latasha said. For the demolition, the couple hired scores of local people who lived near the school to work.
“It was wonderful providing them with an opportunity to make money and help restore the school,” she said.
Latasha believes it will take at least $500,000 to renovate the building. One of the main problems is the dilapidated sewer and water systems. Once those are fixed, the couple will turn its attention to updating electrical and central heat and air systems.
The city of Newport has done little to support this project, and Latasha said that needs to change. The city should help with the sewer and water system upgrade and many of the streets leading into the school are in disrepair. Those same streets are in the main part of Newport’s Black community, she said.
The vision for Branch has several goals, Latasha said. The proposed museum would teach Black history, and the community center would be used by locals for a wide variety of programs and social celebrations. The office space would generate income and foot traffic. A major problem in the community is a lack of close medical care, and the hope is that a medical clinic and some type of therapy clinic will locate in the facility.
Northeast Arkansas has several places relevant to Black culture and history, Roderick said. The Eddie Mae Herron Center is a museum built into the former Pocahontas Colored School. There have been efforts underway for years to build a museum in Hoxie to honor one of the first U.S. integrations. Scott Cemetery is a former slave cemetery that has been studied and chronicled by Arkansas State University.
Roderick said one of the reasons they want to build several hotel rooms inside the building is to accommodate Civil Rights tourists who will come to the region to visit these historical places.
The revitalization of Branch could have other impacts to the Black community, Latasha said. It will help spur neighborhood growth, which will in turn lead to higher property values that will help all residents in the city.
The nonprofit organization is busy seeking grants and other funding mechanisms to meet their goals, Latasha said. Memorial bricks are being sold to anyone who wants a brick to represent their family history at Branch. The couple hopes enough money can be raised to finish the project before the 100th anniversary of the building’s completion in 2023.
“It sits in the heart of the Black community in Newport. It’s a pillar of hope. … We need a win. Our community needs a win,” Latasha said.