Jazz Brunch fundraiser held for Douglass School
Inaugural event advances goal to convert building into cultural and community center
Meet a 74- year-old Sarah-Jane Artis Purcell, a life-long Kokomo resident who attended the city’s historic Frederick Douglass School from first to third grade. Her brothers and sisters preceded her there.
“I’ve always just loved Kokomo, and Douglass set that off,” she told this reporter.
Purcell was among the 175 or more attending and donating to the May 21 Jazz Brunch fundraiser aimed at raising some of the $1 million goal to preserve Douglass School and transform it into a Kokomo cultural and community center. To her, this brunch and reunion of 15 Douglass alumni echoed “just how good things are and how good Kokomo’s been.”
“I have lived here all my life,” said Purcell, who retired from Delco Electronics after 34 years. “I’ve traveled to a lot of places, and I’ve seen a lot of things. But I am always glad to come back to Kokomo.”
“I am very, very proud of Douglass School. Douglass is a fond, fond memory.” – former student Sarah-Jane Purcell
Ethan Heicher is Ivy Tech Community College’s Interim Chancellor. At his behest, the school sponsored and spearheaded the event.
“It is about addressing the diversity of our community. We have students who come to us from all kinds of backgrounds with all kinds of skills,” he said. “This is about meeting the needs of a community and a community partner. This event is an important way of reinvigorating our memory by supporting the renovation and rebuilding of a piece of our history that can be a reminder of the past but extremely useful and important to the future.”
Heicher passionately continued, “If you don’t understand who you are, if you don’t understand your past, it is very hard to negotiate the present and build a future.”
There was good food, good music by the Jason Gornto Jazz Combo, and good vibes for this first-ever Douglass School Brunch fundraiser, which was orchestrated by Karon Lancaster. She is the dynamic daughter of Pastor Sharon Reed, who recently was awarded the key to the city by Kokomo Mayor Tyler Moore. Lancaster also is a leader in the year-old, 1500-member, non-profit group African American Women of Indiana.
“My heart for this project that they are doing at the Douglass School actually lies in the fact that I lived right around the corner on Elm Street across from the Carver Center for 20 years,” she told me. “Seeing my community and living there, I realized that some of the differences between people were those who understood who they were, and those who really didn’t think about who they were.
“And, having a sense of identity, understanding your history, your heritage – what you or your family contribute to the community – it makes a difference in how you respond to that calling in your own life.”
As pastor of Kokomo’s Second Missionary Baptist Church, Dr. William Smith, Jr. is not only a religious leader with political clout but a self-avowed “preserver of history, especially African American culture.” Douglass has a special history and significance, he contended, for Blacks and whites.
“It was the first place many of them were able to play together,” he revealed. “Although we can talk about the painful past of segregation, we can also talk about the blessing of them coming together for the first time playing, experiencing the love and joy of one another. School brings you together. If Douglass is going to be restored, it is going to take all of us.”
Former Kokomo City Councilwoman and doyenne Janie Young was honored by Pastor Smith with Douglass’ first Lifetime Achievement Award.
“It is because of her role behind the scenes, doing so much to make this a reality to restore Douglass School,” he said. “She is a significant player and had a desire to see that school become something. She was very instrumental in making this happen.”
Kokomo banker, activist, and former councilman Robert Hayes, Sr. told the multi-racial audience, “I loved the [Douglass] school more after I became an adult than when I was there. It is part of my heritage.
“It is part of all of Kokomo's heritage whether you went there or not. This is something that needs to be restored, preserved, and it can become a foundation for goodwill for the City of Kokomo.”
Despite the plethora of news about political polarization and racial discord throughout the nation, Sarah-Jean Purcell recounted that racial harmony rang true for her as a Douglass student and later as a working adult.
“When we were children, we didn’t know about all this [racial] stuff,” said Purcell. “We just played with each other. My absolute best friend’s name was Rosemary. She was a little white girl with red hair who was my next-door neighbor. I did not experience anything until I got to be a grown old woman.
“I know Kokomo has been good to me, and I have loved living here. Some of my best friends at Delco were white ladies. I enjoyed their company and being friends with them.”