As fire ripped through the upper floors of the Paul Robeson / Malcolm X Academy in the early morning hours of May 10th, 2011, students and parents started to gather around outside the fence, watching it burn. Contrary to what you’d expect from kids, news reports showed a lot of disappointed faces, anxious about the fate of their school, wondering what would happen next. Over 100 years ago, a similar sense of anxiousness and uncertainty could be seen in the faces of children arriving at the building for the first time, though for very different reasons.
Detroit used to be home to several orphanages, some dating back to the 1800’s. In times of need, when parents were working several jobs or unable to look after their offspring, orphanages provided a safety net which caught children before they fell into a life of mischief and crime. The St. Francis Home for Boys orphanage was founded in Monroe, a small city about half an hour south of Detroit in 1898. After outgrowing the aging facility in Monroe, the Catholic Archdiocese decided to move the home to the Detroit area in 1906, building a spacious new orphanage for 300 boys along Woodward Avenue in Highland Park. Just a few year later, the young residents of the home watched as the land around them was transformed by the construction of Henry Ford’s Highland Park plant, home of the Model “T” automobile and the modern assembly line. Needing a building close to the factory to teach workers skilled trades, Ford offered to buy out the orphanage, as well as provide a large parcel of land west of the city on which to build a new one.
Located on the corner of Fenkell and Linwood, the new orphanage was designed by Albert Kahn and stood five stories tall. It was dedicated in 1917, becoming home for hundreds of boys whose families were unable or unwilling to care for them under the watchful eyes of nuns. Many of the boys, age 6 to 14, were able to go home for weekends, and boarded with host families over Christmas holidays. The building expanded as well, adding a swimming pool, gymnasium, and another wing. From 1942 to 1969, the home became a military school, but eventually switched back.
By 1989, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the orphanage, over 14,000 boys had been through St. Francis. During that time though, the city had changed, as had the program at the orphanage. Many of the boys living there had been sent there by the State of Michigan and had developmental or disciplinary problems. Regulators were investigating alleged physical abuse by staff members, as well as sexual assaults between residents. The state eventually shut down the orphanage in 1992, ending a chapter in its life.
From orphanage to school
In 1991, the Detroit Public Schools began experimenting with an all-male, afro-centric education program it hoped would reach the most vulnerable students – young black men. Three schools were established: Malcolm X Academy, Marcus Garvey Academy, and the Paul Robeson Academy. Due in part to the success of the program, Robeson Academy outgrew its temporary home, and moved into the recently closed St. Francis orphanage. The original plan was for Robeson to become the city’s first boarding school, but the plan was later abandoned.
Throughout the 2000’s the new Robeson Academy had up to 989 students enrolled, attending classes in the former orphanage. The chapel was converted into an auditorium, though it retained much of its original stained glass, as well as confessional booths. In 2009 the Malcolm X Academy moved into an unused part of the building, expanding the program to a pre-kindergarten - 8th grade.
By 2009 though, enrollment at Robeson was down to around 500 students, and school district administrators were looking to leave the building. The orphanage was over 90 years old by that point, and was in poor condition. Several floors of the building were not being used, including the swimming pool, migrant workers quarters, infirmary wing, and the dormitories on the top floor. Faced with rising maintenance costs and $2.5 million dollars in immediate upgrades needed, the school district put the building up for sale in the spring of 2011. It would not stay on the market for long.
On the morning of May 13th, 2011, a fire broke out on the top floor of the school, which was being used for storage. Firefighters responded quickly, but problems gaining access to the site and low water pressure from nearby hydrants allowed the flames to spread quickly under the wooden roof of the school. Throughout the early morning hours and into the day, fire companies battled to contain the blaze, bringing it under control by the evening. The top floor of the building was destroyed, while floors underneath were damaged by heat, smoke, and water.
Exactly how the fire broke out has never been determined. One early theory was that the building had been struck by lightning, as the area was being hit by a severe thunderstorm when the fire broke out. Investigators later looked into if the fire had been accidently set by students who snuck into the attic to smoke, but any evidence was lost in the blaze.
The fire took place during the school year, leaving the district scrambling to find a new home for the program. Just three days later the Robeson Academy and its students had moved to a nearby vacant school building, and classes resumed. Local businesses pitched in with supplies to replace those that had been lost in the fire.
Throughout the summer the wrecked school sat empty, while administrators considered their options. Damage to the school and its supplies was estimated at over $2 million dollars, while complete replacement of the school would have cost ten times that amount. As the weeks turned into months, the huge amounts of water that had been dumped into the building to put out the fire created the perfect breeding ground for toxic black mold, which rapidly spread throughout the school.
Also gnawing away at the building were scrap metal thieves, who repeatedly broke in to steal copper pipes, wiring, and aluminum window frames. Security patrols were stepped up, and a wireless camera security system was installed to catch scrappers in the act. One police officer was injured during a scuffle with a scrapper, who slashed him with a piece of metal while being subdued.
In September of 2011, the district announced that it was going to demolish the damaged school building, as rebuilding it was costly and impractical given how many vacant school buildings were nearby. The security measures were removed, and the building was given up to plunder by waves of scrappers who stripped everything of value. At one point, the scrapping took on the air of a festive carnival: mothers in sweatpants carried armfuls of pipe and wiring through the hallways while their kids were in school, loading up cars parked in the courtyard and driving away with their bounty. Computers were smashed for the gold in their processors, and metal desks were thrown from the upper floors to the ground below. Every last window frame was stripped from the front and back of the building.
After the fire, all of the school supplies – textbooks, computers, desks, chairs, televisions, etc. – had been left behind. On the floors directly beneath the fire, much of these supplies had been damaged by water or smoke, while other rooms were quickly infested with mold. With so many schools closing in recent years the district already had a warehouse overflowing with extra supplies; in any event, items recovered from Robeson would likely to have had to undergo decontamination or cleaning. The swift abandonment of the building left some classrooms frozen in time, with lesson plans written on blackboards, and textbooks left underneath desks.
Demolition of the school began in the summer of 2012.