PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) – Every day, Robert Cain and Mary Buoyn watch the cars line up on Lincoln Avenue to pick up their kids from Rising Star Academy Charter School.
“These cars are bringing these children right up there to the school in that same spot,” Cain said. “Of course, it’s bigger now than it was then.”
They watch and think about the school that they once knew and how it has evolved over the century.
“I went there when I was small, and you used to have to do your ABCs at church and at school,” Cain said.
The now award-winning charter school was formerly known as Oak Grove Elementary— one of the all-Black schools in Panama City before the Civil Rights Movement.
Panama City resident Vergil Marshall said it is important for the next generations to learn about the school’s history.
“The students, nor the parents, nor the faculty here probably know the history of the school,” Marshall said. “It was originally started in 1910. It was the St. Andrews negro school.”
Until 1936, the school included first through eighth grades, with only one teacher who had no qualifications. Classes were held in whatever church had space until establishing their first home in 1941 near the current Oakland Terrace Elementary.
They changed the name of the school to Oak Grove Elementary. Twenty years later, the existing structure on Lincoln Avenue was built. It is in a predominantly Black community called “The Hill.”
“The Hill is a small community, and it was prominent during the boom of the shipyards and different things, and we are just a nice little community,” Marshall said.
They call it The Hill because it is on higher land than most of Panama City. For the Cains, The Hill has always been their home.
“People came from other cities, and they enjoyed being here on The Hill,” Cain said.
Cain graduated from Oak Grove, then later Rosenwald High School.
He went off to college, returned to Panama City in 1965 and became the principal of the school right down the road from his house.
By then, the school included classrooms, libraries, health rooms and teachers with college degrees. One of those teachers was Cain’s wife, Mary Buoyn.
“I learned so much about being a teacher, the children were very polite,” Bouyn said. “They just fell in love with me, and I fell in love with them.”
She said the school’s enrollment numbers increased every day.
“The teachers were so kind, and they enjoyed teaching, and we did everything we could to motivate the children and let them learn,” Bouyn said.
Then came the Civil Rights Movement in the early to mid-1960s. Bay County began integrating schools, and Oak Grove closed its doors in 1968.
“The history is deeply ingrained in my family as my uncle (Cain) was the last principal to close the school in 1968 due to integration,” Marshall said.
Since the school closed, it has been home to the first Margaret K. Lewis School for children with disabilities, and now it is a charter school.
Longtime residents of The Hill reflect on this piece of Panama City history every day, but now, they want to make sure others know it, too.
Members of The Hill community hope to secure a historical marker for the former Oak Grove Elementary School so everyone can read about the history.