CRESTVIEW — It was just 52 years ago when David Wheeler became one of the last children in Okaloosa County to suffer from segregation at the county’s only black high school, Carver-Hill.
Hidden away at the Carver-Hill Museum on McClelland Street in Crestview lay numerous photographs, trophies, uniforms and other memorabilia encapsulating the stories of those 17 graduates from the Class of 1966 and the school they call a place of hope, strength and love.
“It was more than a school for us,” said the 71-year-old Wheeler, now the president of the Carver-Hill Memorial and Historical Society. “This was a segregated community. It’s where Afro-American people lived. Carver-Hill was like the heartbeat, the center of the community.”
On Thursday Wheeler wandered through the bookshelves of Carver-Hill artifacts, which brought back memories of his days at the school. Segregation may have been unfair, but Wheeler said the black teachers at Carver-Hill were committed to giving students the best education possible.
Wheeler stopped and pointed to a portrait in a row of 10 educators’ photographs.
“This was Coach Freeman, my football coach,” Wheeler said before moving to another one.
“And this was Mozel Thomas,” he said, pointing to another photograph. “If you went to Carver-Hill and started in first grade, she was your teacher and she was tough.”
Wheeler said the row of teachers’ photographs commemorated the ones who had passed away. A smaller table on his left displayed five photos of those still living.
The Carver-Hill High School, according to the museum’s timeline plastered on its walls, was built on School Avenue in 1954. It was named after George Washington Carver, a botanist and inventor, and Ed Hill, a local advocate for black schools. The city block of School Avenue was purchased for only $50 in 1944.
During segregation, Carver-Hill High School was the only school in Okaloosa County where black high school students could be educated.
“The high school kids that would have gone to Fort Walton Beach High School, Choctaw High School or Niceville High School had to get on a bus at 4 a.m. and make the journey up here to go to high school,” Wheeler said.
In 1966, while Wheeler was fighting in the Vietnam War, Okaloosa County began desegregating and black students were allowed to attend Crestview High School.
The Carver-Hill School stayed open for the younger students until 1969, when all segregation was eliminated in the area.
The Carver-Hill Museum was built in 1997 and is said to be the only one in Okaloosa County to emphasize black history. The late Caroline Baker Allen, founder and first president of the Carver-Hill Memorial and Historical Society, helped found the museum with other Carver-Hill alumni in an effort to keep the history alive.
Although the museum’s first purpose was to serve as Carver-Hill High School’s archive, it eventually grew into a museum. Dish pans, slop buckets, projectors, military uniforms, newspapers and more decorate the back room.
The history, though, also spreads out of the museum and onto McClelland Street. The neighborhood surrounding the museum is where the families linked to Carver-Hill High School lived and continues to live.
Although the streets are no longer made of dirt and a few new buildings have replaced the old, Wheeler said everything mostly looks as it did back then.
“We’ve seen some changes, but basically things are the same because no one invests in this community anymore,” Wheeler said. “They are invested in other communities because their economic status has changed. That’s what we really wanted to happen anyway.
“My wish is that when we move on to other places is that we don’t forget. I’d like to see it be a well-kept community even though it’s an old well-kept community.”
For more information, visit carverhillmemorialandhistoricalsocietyinc.org.
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