You’ve heard us talk about the Moorehead community before, but did you know it was closely related to another Black community in north Lakeland?
The Washington Park community came to be in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until a visit from Booker T. Washington — an influential Black American, advisor to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and founder of the Tuskegee Institute — that the area got its name.
On March 5, 1912, roughly 2,000 individuals from Lakeland and beyond paid a 50-cent admission to hear from Washington. Over the course of 90 minutes, crowds listened intently as he advocated for the education of Black communities.
By 1921, Washington Park’s population had doubled, and student enrollment at Lakeland’s existing Black school, the Moorehead School, was reaching its capacity. In 1926, a two-story brick building on the corner of Tenth Street and North Dakota Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue) became Lakeland’s first high school for Black students.
It was Florida’s sixth Black high school, and in 1930 ten students — Elnora Bryant, Velma Dickerson, Peaches Felder, Celeste P. Green, Inez Harris, Maggie Jordan, Vera Lucas, Lucy Lloyd, Maxwell Saxon, and Inez Shipp — became Lakeland’s first Black high school graduates.
In 1949, Washington Park High School was renamed Rochelle High School, after prominent Black community leader and educator William A. Rochelle. A new school was built a few blocks down North Dakota Avenue two years later, and the original structure operated as a middle school and elementary school until Polk schools were desegregated in 1969 and the structure was demolished in 1970.
In 1992, Rochelle School of the Arts reopened as Florida’s first-ever performing arts school, and the second performing arts school nationwide.
Do you have photos of the Washington Park community? Share them with us so we can add them to this page’s gallery.
Head to the Lakeland History and Culture Center’s Ties that Bind exhibit — specifically the “Crossing Ties” display — to learn more about Lakeland’s history of racial segregation and the events that led to a unified city, including Booker T. Washington’s visit.