Herbert Keith and Primus Moore are determined to not let a piece of McAlester history — which also happens to be their alma mater — crumble and fall to the ground.
They acted together to purchase the former L’Ouverture school building at 1404 E. Cherokee Ave. from McAlester Public Schools. Set one block south of Wade Watts Boulevard, the building saw its most recent use as MPS’s Key Academy alternative school, before MPS decided to close the the doors for good and move the alternative school to the McAlester High School campus.
Keith and Moore are heading the drive to restore L’Ouverture so the former school building can be used once again.
“It’s a community thing. It’s all about the community,” Keith said.
They are determined not to let the former L’Ouverture School fall to the wrecking ball.
“This building is too important and too valuable to tear down,” Keith said.
Both Keith and Moore graduated from L’Ouverture with the Class of 1965, with Keith the class valedictorian. Keith is a retired Oklahoma City firefighter who lives in Luther. While in McAlester to conduct some business he met with Moore, who is a retired educator who’s served as a principal at Eugene Field Elementary as well as a teacher for MPS.
In addition to helping with the L’Ouverture project, Keith is working on bringing back some events once associated with the school, including an event he hopes to hold in May. “It’s called the May Day Festival,” Keith said, recalling how a May Pole was set up for the day when he was a kid. “It was like a play day for us,” Keith said. “We had a lot of fun.” He hopes to schedule a May Day for this year at Hunter Park, which is adjacent to L’Ouverture.
“We want the entire community to be a part of this,” Keith said.
The next scheduled event related to L’Ouverture is a second public meeting to discuss possible future uses, It’s set for 3 p.m. on April 18 at Mount Triumph Baptist Church, 408 East Wyandotte Ave. “It will be an update for anybody who missed the first meeting,” Keith said.
That could include quite a few individuals. An intense winter storm blanketed the McAlester area on Feb. 28, the day of the first public meeting regarding L’Ouverture. Still, about 15 hardy individuals went slipping and sliding to make their way to Mount Triumph for the February meeting regarding the former school.
“The dedicated people showed up,” Keith said. One young lady had already written a grant application trying to gain funds for the L’Ouverture project, he said.
A representative of District 7 state Rep. Larry Boggs, R-Red Oak, attended the meeting and said the senator’s office is willing to help, according to Keith. He and Moore are hopeful others will be willing to help as well, including individuals, businesses, clubs and organizations.
“We’re open for any organization to help us out,” Keith said.
Keith is also a member of a group that owns the former L’Ouverture Gymnasium, adjacent to the former school. The gym has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Keith, Moore and other L’Ouverture graduates hope to see the gymnasium restored as well.
Moore and Keith know the school building will require some work and money, and restoring the gymnasium will require even more work and money.
“We’re going to do it in phases,” Keith said of plans for the former L’Ouverture school. “We’ll work on the high school side first, then the elementary,” he said, referring to different sections of the elementary school building.
Moore said the hope is to create a non-profit organization to benefit L’Ouverture. A sister of Moore’s, Lulla Wilson, has also offered to help with grant writing.
“She was a member of the last graduating class, the Class of ‘68,” Moore said. After that, L’Ouverture students were integrated into McAlester Public Schools.
The original L’Overture School opened in 1908 to serve the African American community in McAlester. The building currently standing at 14th Street and Cherokee Avenue replaced the original building.
L’Ouverture School operated at its full capacity until 1968. Integration with McAlester Public Schools resulted in 115 L’Ouverture High School students transferring to McAlester High School. L’Ouverture’s first through eighth grades continued to operate for a brief time longer.
“Dr. Willa Strong was the last principal at the school,” Moore said. She served for years as an inspiration to L’Ouverture students, Moore recalled.
After Strong died in 1971, McAlester city councilors passed a resolution renaming part of Eleventh Street, between South Avenue and Electric Avenue in her honor, renaming it Strong Boulevard.
For now, Moore and Keith are hoping to raise awareness about what they would like to accomplish regarding the future of L’Ouverture.
“We want the community to know we’re working on this,” Keith said. “We’re going to make it work.
“I’m getting excited,” he said. “Things are falling together.”