Saying goodbye to a school that embodied hope

Until a fire ravaged the sprawling Paul Robeson Academy in Detroit last year, the African-centric  school was a rare symbol of hope in a district sapped of money, resources and students.

Even the school’s sprawling, neo-Gothic building on the west side stood as a symbol of strength and academia against the backdrop of blight and poverty.

Later this summer, however, the 200,000-square-foot building that once housed more than 600 bright students from pre-kindergarten to 8th grade – most of them from poverty homes – is to meet the wrecking ball.

Curious of what’s left of the brick school – also known as the Malcolm X. Academy – we toured the four-story building and found more than weather-beaten books, fallen lockers and crumbling classrooms.

Photos of black leaders and messages of hope clung to walls crawling with black mold. Maps of Africa curled and faded from lashing wind and rain. Upended pews rested on the floor of a chapel.

It felt like a sad commentary on the status of civil rights in a city where African Americans continue to face disproportionate challenges.
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Illiteracy and graduation rates remain dismally low, while crime and abandonment are out of control.

Compounding the feeling was the clang of metal from several floors of the school, a former orphanage, where a group of middle-aged Detroiters scavenged for copper wires and metal pipes, which they tossed in a a pickup truck parked by the window of a classroom.

“It’s just going to waste anyway,” one of them explained. “We got mouths to feed too.”

Scrappers have been so pervasive that the building looks like an empty carcass, its center picked apart of anything valuable. Even the wood-framed windows are gone.

Beginning in July, demolition and asbestos abatement is to begin.

We’ll say goodbye to another gem.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.