In its heyday, the old Douglass High School at 600 N High represented a big step forward for Oklahoma City's black community at a time when “separate but equal” was often interpreted by white authorities as simply “separate.”
It was 1934 when the former all-white Lowell School was expanded and transformed into a new home for the all-black Douglass High School.
The building was monumental in size and appearance, equipped with an indoor swimming pool, gymnasium, auditorium and stage.
Unlike previous homes for Douglass High School, the building was in the middle of the black community, not hidden among industrial properties.
The school's instructors included the legendary Zelia Breaux, daughter of the first president of Langston University, and whose students included jazz great Charlie Christian. Douglass students included Ralph Ellison, author of the National Book Award winner “The Invisible Man.”
Douglass moved to yet another home in 1954, and the building at 600 N High began to fade away as it transitioned from one school to another before closing in 1993.
And there it has stood, increasingly isolated in a neighborhood that also began to vanish before staging a comeback over the past decade.
A couple blocks to the northeast, the John F. Kennedy Neighborhood is filling up with great new homes. The Oklahoma Health Center, meanwhile, employs tens of thousands to the north and to the west. Development of the Oklahoma River is not too far to the south, as is a rail line that might be incorporated into a new downtown streetcar system.
And to the west is Deep Deuce, Bricktown and a vibrant downtown.
It's no surprise that the Oklahoma City School Board was thrilled at the possibility of the old school becoming the new home of Langston University's Oklahoma City branch campus. The history, location and development all around 600 N High suggest such a development could be a game changer for east Oklahoma City.
For years, we've seen the downtown renaissance spread to the north, through NW 23 and Paseo. It's not a stretch to see how a Langston at 600 N High could make the same momentum take place through the beautiful but struggling old neighborhoods farther east.
But there's a catch — this conversation involves a one-hour visit between Eddie Jackson, representative of Renaissance JFK, which submitted an $825,000 bid for the school, and Dr. Kent Smith Jr., president of Langston University.
“We've not been involved at all,” Smith told me Monday. “We had one meeting a week before last with the developer. He submitted the idea. We had an hourlong meeting. That's it. I've not reviewed the site. We've not done any feasibility study.
“From a Langston viewpoint, it's very early to say whether it's something to do on our end.”
The timing isn't bad, however. Smith confirms the university is set to start a long-term plan for its city branch, and he does not believe the best step forward is to continue leasing its current branch at 4205 N Lincoln Blvd.
Smith is intrigued. But that's as far as this discussion has gone. And remodeling any large historic old building left empty for 20 years, especially the old Douglass High School, likely will cost more than building new.
How much? That figure isn't known. A community development group attempted to redevelop the site as a cultural center a decade ago and estimated the renovation might cost up to $30 million.
With such a potential price tag, one might wonder why the Oklahoma City School Board thought it could haggle over the selling price and demand another $75,000.
Langston University hosts 450 people at its Oklahoma City campus. Smith's goal is to double that enrollment — a figure that would do quite nicely at 600 N High. The potential for interaction with the OU Medical Center, the nearby neighborhoods and the area's workforce could create a great dynamic for reviving the east side of town.
But if history is our guide, asking for an additional $75,000 from the buyer is almost a distraction from the great challenges that must be overcome to make this dream a reality.