First all Black school in Laurel during segregation continues its legacy in 2023

Oak Park Elementary remembered in Laurel
Published: Feb. 24, 2023 at 12:35 AM CST
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LAUREL, Miss. (WDAM) - Pride, tradition, and legacy are just some of the many words that come to mind when looking back at the history planted along Queensburg Avenue in Laurel.

“I went to school here from kindergarten to 10th grade and it was an all-Black school,” Laurel School Board vice president Nancy Breland said. “Everyone here was Black. The teachers were Black, the students were Black. Then in 1970 integration came and it was a cultural shock.”

Breland isn’t the only one who once walked the halls of Oak Park Elementary School in Laurel, and still stands strong within the district.

“In the late 70s early 80s, I was maybe a fourth grader and it was about 10 years into integration,” said Dr. Jaymar Jackson.

Jackson wears several hats these days, serving as principal at Laurel Education Center, assistant athletic director of the Laurel School District, and voice of the Golden Tornadoes.

“You would see past graduates’ pictures on the wall and every kid in this community they had a mom, a dad, a grandparent, or somebody on their wall,” said Jackson. “So, we would race to say hi that’s my mom, that’s my aunt, that’s my grandma.

“We just had that desire knowing that they walked these halls we wanted to do the same,” he said.

That same desire grew in Dr. Leander Bridges II, filling big shoes as principal at Oak Park Elementary today.

“I stand on the shoulders of giants,” Dr. Bridges said. “I did not attend Oak Park, but so many of my family members attended. Multiple, aunts, my mother prior to integration was in elementary school here,”

Now walking the same halls, exploring the history, and greeting tomorrow’s leaders, Dr. Bridges and even Laurel Superintendent Dr. Toy Watts believe it’s their responsibility to not only lead but also educate their students about those who paved the way.

“To learn about Deborah Hyde who was a surgeon, to learn about Ralph Boston, who was a gold-medal Olympian,” Watts said. “Then, we decided we were going to start teaching the history of the Oak Parkites. They refer to themselves as the Oak Parkites.

“So, we decided we were to start teaching the history to the students of the Laurel School District and our tag line was ‘Tornados of today have dragon DNA,’” she said.

Dr. Watts said to maximize the Oak Park legacy and curriculum, all students in the district PreK to first grade will start out as Oak Park Dragons and then eventually bridge over to Laurel Tornadoes, all starting next school year.

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