Community leaders breathing new life into heart of Gifford
To many on the outside Gifford is a high-crime, high-poverty African-American community between the cities of Vero Beach and Sebastian. To many on the inside, it is a steadfast community aware of its problems but tenaciously determined to make it better. “Our community seems to have lost its heart,” said Dr. Jacqueline Warrior, one of the many Gifford residents working to create change. “We are more than high-everything that is dysfunctional. That is not all what Gifford is about!”
Drive into the physical heart of Gifford along 45th Street, and you will see positive change. There is a new beautiful park, the Gifford Health Center, and a little red-and-white building perched just across from the Gifford Middle School. This is the home of what will be the Gifford Historic Museum and was built by the Florida East Coast Railway workers as the “Old Macedonia Colored Church” for their worship services well over a century ago. “It’s going to get done this year,” says Gifford native Jonnie Mae Perry with determination.
Perry heads up the now decades-long effort to bring a sense of history and pride to Gifford through a collaborative effort of the Gifford Community Cultural and Resource Center, the Gifford Historic Museum, the Gifford High School Alumni Association, the Indian River County Historical Society and Gifford Middle School. The museum will feature the stories of the original founding families through visual displays and videos.
Gifford High School alumni Daniel Conner, Jonnie Mae Perry, Katherine Washington and Percy Perry pose in the same spot where they used to take their class photos. (Photo: Tania Ortega-Cowan)
“We are working on a Florida Historical Landmark sign for the sundial area at Gifford High School,” Stanbridge said. “Now we just need to raise funds. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could connect with some builders and architects? And this would be a perfect project for the Garden Club. Teachers could bring kids out here to read under the shady oak trees. And of course, once the museum is open, history teachers can easily walk their classes over.”
The conversation quickly turned to where they want to place the historic marker, and how they might inspire and attract others to help get this done.
“By telling the story of these families, our youth can see their link to the past,” said Perry. “We plan to have school tours come through as an educational experience.” The museum will also be the home of numerous artifacts to give a glimpse into what daily life was like, including an original press iron and the giant “rowboat” tubs which doubled as boiling pots to clean clothes and for making soup on Sunday afternoons. “Visitors will also be able to use a computer to walk through the story line as well as learn about Black History in general,” added Perry.
When the little church was in the crosshairs of a bulldozer some 20 years ago, Ruth Stanbridge of the Historical Society, the Progressive Civic League and the United Way saved it and moved it from Sebastian to its current location on land donated by the county. “The whole time we knew this was going to be a museum with the history of Gifford in it,” said Stanbridge.
Adding to the historical mystique are the giant tombstones on the property dating back to a cemetery opened in 1926. When the larger Crestlawn cemetery opened a few years later, they moved the bodies, but they could not afford to move the heavy tombstones, so there they stand.
Across the street is Gifford Middle, which used to be Gifford High School until desegregation in 1969 when students were bused to Vero Beach High School. Perry and her husband, Percy, were students during that time. While desegregation was good for society, it was actually not so good for Gifford, and may have accelerated the decline of this tight-knit community.
“Those first few years, we went through some transitions emotionally which you didn’t talk about because you didn’t even know how to articulate it,” she said.
One of their goals is to restore the original facade of Gifford High School and a sundial, which are still intact. The sundial was a gift of the class of 1964. Katherine Washington was part of that class and explained, “Dr. Thomas Jackson came up with the idea. I said, ‘A sundial?’ And he said, ‘Keep in mind, it will be there for future generations to know that there was a Gifford High School.'”
“The school seems to evoke a lot of positive memories,” added Warrior. “Percy Perry, who is usually very quiet, really opened up at a meeting after seeing it, and I thought, this is what it means to give a community its heart back.”
Outgoing principal Roxanne Decker and incoming principal Tosha Jones are working with the group to preserve the old school, including a giant timeline in the library and the original front of the high school.
Timeline of the history of Gifford High School. (Photo: Tania Ortega-Cowan