Edward Waters College, 4: Three Alarm Coda

by Tim Gilmore, 3/19/2021

cont’d from Edward Waters College, 3: B.F. Lee Seminary Building and Milne Auditorium

Professor David Jamison walks the neighborhood with me, walks the campus, acknowledges the campus imbued through the neighborhood. Each infuses and informs the other. Generous and gracious, he’s shared with me his research into the college’s history, his love of the mystery, his feeling for how what’s no longer here affects what is.

photographic negative of Lee Seminary Building, date unknown, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

In the late 1930s, Edward Waters College stopped offering third and fourth year college courses, “reverted,” as Dr. Jamison puts it, “to junior college status.” These days, 30th EWC President Zachary Faison has brought the college’s accounts into the black. Retention and graduation rates are increasing. Enrollment tops 1,000 students. Meanwhile, as state college campuses, mirroring the current college-age generation, grow more diverse than ever before, so Historically Black Colleges and Universities diversify their own populations. Lanky longhaired white male students, who look like me a quarter century ago, wander campus, Grunthal Street, Kings Road and West Fifth. David has white and Latinx students in all his classes.

Centennial Hall, 1954, courtesy David Jamison

When Edward Waters “fell back” to junior college status, reducing its offerings as attendance plummeted during the Great Depression, further fires threatened to annihilate the school. Somehow the college had survived, by permutations and skin sloughings, the 19th century, but ’36 seemed irremediable and irredeemable. So fell Salter Hall in a blaze.

Salter Hall, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Photo captions said, “Scenes above show havoc wrought at Edward Waters College on Kings Road Thursday night.” The “three alarm fire” started “in the four story girls’ dormitory and, fanned by a brisk northeast wind, spread to two adjoining buildings, one of which was only partly burned, as shown by the pictures.” Another caption concluded, like a microaggressive footnote, “The college is a negro institution.”

One newswire description of the apocalypse reported, “Fanned by a high wind and by the firemen handicapped by low water pressure, two frame buildings at Edward Waters College were destroyed Tuesday night.

courtesy David Jamison

“The girls’ dormitory and the annex were the structures affected and there were no casualties. When the alarm was given, the girls in the dormitory threw their valuables out of windows and then rushed to safety.

“The boy students quickly removed the girls’ luggage, trunks and other effects from the danger zone.

“President of the college, Charles P. Long, was ill in bed, across the street from the burning buildings. A defective flue was given as the cause of the blaze. President Long was taken to the hospital last Friday, his illness having become acute.”

courtesy David Jamison

It’s not my purpose here to chart, step by step, the college’s history. I recognize my outsider status and Professor Jamison’s graciousness. President Long lived and continued to lead the college. Against astounding odds, Edward Waters College survived and kept surviving. Walking here, more than 80 years after the last fire, I seek my own education in a different form. I seek out my blind spots. I try to see what I can’t see and to see why I can’t see it.

All I’ve done today is wander through shadows. I stand in falling burning embers of frames and floors above, but they’re long, long gone and cannot hurt me. I notice air plants and epiphytes growing in fissures between massive stones, over arches, betwixt gargoyles holding shields. Plant me there. Hide this story between those stones. I’ll be a wallflower. I’ll feel right at home.

entry arch connecting B.F. Lee Theological Seminary Building to Milne Auditorium