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Plans to renovate first school for Black children in LaBelle move forward

Posted at 5:05 AM, Aug 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-01 05:49:36-04

LABELLE, Fla. — Fox 4 is laying out the plans for a school in LaBelle that dates back to the 1930s. LaBelle City Council unanimously approved renovating and refurbishing Daniels Elementary School. Daniels Elementary is the first known school for black children in LaBelle, and was started by a woman named Selma Daniels.

Fox 4 first told you about Daniels Elementary in February. Selma Daniels was born in 1898 in Alabama, and moved to LaBelle with her husband in 1930. In a letter she wrote, Selma described LaBelle at the time as "a small place with growing pines, oaks, and palmettos."

"Schools were segregated. I grew up during that time," one of Selma Daniels' students, Henry Gresham, said.
Gresham, 62, said at that time, black children in LaBelle had no access to education, other than going 60 miles round-trip to Clewiston.

The letter said as more kids came to the area, Selma Daniels started having classes out of her home, and she wrote "Lady Luck began smiling on us." The idea for Daniels Elementary was born. The school is right on the corner of what's now called Selma Daniels Avenue and Manatee. Selma Daniels wrote in her letter that the Principal of the white school at the time told her it should be named Daniels Elementary. "This is an honor I will cherish all the days of my life," she wrote in the letter.

After Morning Anchor Lisa Greenberg's original story on Daniels Elementary aired in February, a contractor named Karl Lorenz reached out to her, saying he wanted to bring the school back to life. Lisa and Karl, along with Brandon Jett, the Florida Southwestern State College Professor who first told Fox 4 about Daniels Elementary, went to the City of LaBelle to make it happen. Now, that plan is moving forward.

"It was actually Lisa Greenberg's fault!" Lorenz said. "It piqued my interest. I saw the story, and I knew nothing about it. But to see you out here, and to see that lady {Dorothy Johnson, a former student} out here, knowing she went to school here. This is a part of history that needs to be preserved.”

Lorenz contacted Lisa on social media, and they got the ball rolling. Fox 4 reached out to City Commissioner Julie Wilkins, who's now the Mayor of LaBelle. Wilkins met Lorenz and Lisa at Daniels Elementary to walk them through the steps to get the renovation and refurbishing of the school on the City Council Agenda.

"This represents something," Lorenz said.

He got right to work, brainstorming how to restore what's left of the school into something the community could be proud of.

"This building is in disrepair to say the least. What do you think it's going to take to kind of bring it back?” Lisa asked Lorenz.

"A lot of love, a lot of community effort, but it's doable," Lorenz said. "Clean the outside of the property. My guys can trim whatever trees that need to be done. This gets set up, we repaint it. We need to check the roof, so I can make sure that we don't have holes and stuff."

But refurbishing Daniels Elementary is about more than what it looks like on the outside.

"The floor is still pretty solid, as far as the beams. But that floor shouldn't be walked on," Lorenz said.

So his idea is to turn the front doors of Daniels Elementary in to a giant window. People go up a ramp to look in, and take in the entire inside of the school.

"We make sure the structure is structurally sound, but since we're not allowing people in there, it's not going to cost a bunch of money to do a lot of repairs," Lorenz said.

Then, it's about transforming what's inside these four walls, to honor the memories of children who otherwise would've been forgotten.

"Just for people come in and take a look, they can see it, and they can kind of get a part of history back in their mind that is kind of been quelched," he said. "We want to turn it back to as close as original as we possibly can. I want to be able to get desks that were that period. I want to be able to put stuff on the walls, bookshelves, whatever was there, and replicate it as close as possible.”

That's where 79-year-old Dorothy Johnson comes in. She was a student of Selma Daniels.

"I just remember her sitting there behind that desk with those long red fingernails," Johnson recalled.

She will share how much of the building, from the sink to the bookshelves, is original. Because there are no photos of the inside of Daniels Elementary, Johnson will paint a picture of what the classroom looked like.

"Ms. Johnson is going to be a huge help," Lorenz said.

One of the best parts is Lorenz has volunteered to do the labor for the entire project for free.

"I felt that as a duty of mine, now that people are aware of it, to get this done. And the most expensive part of any job is your labor. Well, if we donate that, and I'm out and I have some of my guys out, and we get this set up, and it's something these folks would be proud of... that's the payment, right? That's the payment," Lorenz said.

Lorenz presented his plans to LaBelle City Council, and they unanimously approved. Now, we're looking for volunteers to help with the project. If you're interested in helping rebuild the school, paint the walls, or donate to the project, you can reach out to an email address that's been set up for the project: DanielsElementaryProject@gmail.com.

If you’re interested in helping in any way, send an email to that address.

Once the school is renovated, the plan is to go to Governor Ron DeSantis to see if he’ll deem it a historical site.