Until 1928, black students of high school age in Polk County, Florida had to attend a school outside the county because there were no high schools for black students within the county. That changed when Washington Park High School opened at the corner of Tenth Street and North Dakota Avenue (now Martin Luther King Avenue) in Lakeland. It became only the sixth high school in Florida serving the educational needs of black students. It graduated its first class of ten students in 1930.
The school’s name was changed to William A. Rochelle High School in 1949 to honor one of the city’s longest serving and most accomplished black educators. When a new and larger facility was built a few blocks away on North Dakota Avenue, it too was named William A. Rochelle High School. The old Washington Park High School continued to serve the black community as a junior high school and later an elementary school before being demolished in the early 1970’s.
Although segregation in public schools was legally outlawed in 1954 by the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, separate schools for black and white students were maintained in Polk County until well into the 1960’s. Although the previously all white Lakeland High School admitted its first black students in the fall of 1965, Rochelle high School continued to operate until the spring of 1969 when it graduated its last class of ninety students.
This collection of commencement and baccalaureate programs, reunion programs, and other keepsakes represent virtually all that the Lakeland Public Library has in its collections to document the history of Washington Park/Rochelle High School. Though the library has an extensive collection of yearbooks representing most of the high schools un Lakeland, there is not a single Washington Park/Rochelle High School yearbook in the collection.
That is a shortcoming we at the library would like to correct. If anyone in the community has a collection of Washington Park/Rochelle High school yearbooks, please consider donating them to the library where they will be preserved for future generations.