Hunter Park celebration honors L'Ouverture volunteers

·4 min read

May 17—A group of alumni, local and area residents and visitors gathered at McAlester's Michael J. Hunter Memorial Park on Saturday for a May Day celebration — and so much more.

In addition to the celebration, organizers trying to save the former L'Ouverture School Building at 1401 E. Cherokee Ave. hoped get more individuals involved in the effort. They also publicly thanked some of those who have already helped with cleanup and restoration efforts.

The Saturday celebration marked the first major public event held at Hunter Park since major efforts have been underway to clean up and upgrade the park.

McAlester resident Primus Moore, a retired educator and principal with McAlester Public Schools, said May Day had been a major event when he attended L'Ouverture.

"It used to be a big fun-day celebration when we were getting close to the end of school," he said.

Moore, the class president of the L'Ouverture Class of 1965, spoke of the history of the former L'Ouverture School as well as the current cleanup and restoration efforts. Herbert Keith, the valedictorian of the L'Ouverture Class of 1965, joined Moore at the podium for the celebratory event.

"We want to honor all the volunteers who are present," Keith said

Keith is hopeful more will volunteer and also help in other ways with the restoration of the former L'Ouverture School, now known as the L'Ouverture Historical Center.

"A lot of hands make a heavy load light," Keith said.

Keith noted that progress has been made on cleaning up the former school building, thanks to volunteers, including McAlester Police Lt. Bobby Cox, who has helped with the volunteer efforts while off-duty.

McAlester Mayor John Browne also stood on the podium to address the participants, which included former Mayor Steve Harrison.

L'Ouverture School was the public school attended by African American students in McAlester for a 60-year period, from 1908 to 1968 — when 115 L'Ouverture High School students integrated with McAlester High School, followed later by students in the elementary through eighth grades. MPS had last used the building as the Key Academy Alternative School before moving the alternative school to the McAlester High School campus.

In 2014, Moore and Keith joined together as the L'Ouverture Class of 1965 to purchase the building from McAlester Public Schools in 2014. Keith said those supporting the effort are getting close to obtaining a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit designation for the L'Ouverture restoration project.

During the Hunter Park event, old friends reunited while people made new ones. Afro Student Union sponsor Rosalynn Jones talked with Yvonne Allford about upcoming activities.

Rashaud Buie, the new assistant boys soccer coach at McAlester Public Schools, who was also graduating from the University of Oklahoma over the weekend, stopped by the event.

Coluah Watts Stanfield and Lynn Watts, whose father was the well-known civil rights advocate, Wade Watts, also took part in the celebration.

"This is great," Stanfield said. "I see people here with their kids. It's a community." Speaking of her father and others who worked for civil rights, she said "That's what they were all about when they were alive.

The Rev. Donald E. Brown had attended L'Ouverture in elementary school before transferring to Emerson Elementary after integration.

"This is our history," he said. "I hope more people in the community help us save this school."

Ricky Barr kept a cooker going during the early part of the day to prepare a meal for the celebrants, while nearby Mark Johnson, of Restoration Ministries, kept another one fired up.

Some students, including Isaiah Hishaw, Aaron Hall and Asia Hall played games during the morning. Later, they and other members of the Afro Student Union were honored with certificates thanking them for their volunteer work to help clean up L'Ouverture.

The Pittsburg County Health Department had a station set up, where Registered Nurses Shandy Schmitt and Tiffany Busby administered COVID-19 vaccinations to anyone who wanted one, including Adam Butler, who got his first shot.

Rev, Brown said he believes restoring the L'Ouverture building would be a benefit to McAlester.

"It's going to help the whole community," he said.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.