The renovation was in full swing when they began to tear down the walls and rip up the floorboards. Removing the layers of old blackboards, they noticed something hidden behind them. They thought it was strange, but continued with their work – after all, they had a job to do. But as they exposed more and more of the black slate beneath, they downed their tools and stared in awe. They had to call someone – and fast.
Emerson High School in downtown Oklahoma had been around for decades and had seen a few minor renovations in its day. But a fresh coat of paint and some new floorboards hadn’t been enough to reveal the building’s ancient secret. Sherry Read, math and geometry teacher, couldn’t believe her eyes when the workers told her what they had found in her classroom.
The high school was built in 1911 and has a rich history. Hundreds of children have walked through its doors and attended lessons in those classrooms. So many memories were made in those halls – successes, failures, and many firsts. But this was the first time anyone had seen anything like this. A 100-year-old secret had been lying in plain sight, if only they had known where to look.
Previous renovations had only revealed broken pipes and old wiring, but when construction workers began the task of upgrading the school’s outdated chalkboards they never expected to find a piece of history behind them. They started on the second floor, but as they pulled the old blackboards off the classroom wall, they were greeted with a sight they would never forget.
Principal Sherry Kishore was immediately alerted to the discovery, and when she arrived shivers went down her spine. “I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and then I got goosebumps and then I had tears in my eyes,” she said in an interview with KFOR. But what had she seen that had shaken her so?
The haunting images and writing behind the chalkboard was scrawled with chalk and eerily intact. A strange circular symbol with numbers arranged around it loomed brightly on the old slate. In all her years, Sherry had never seen anything like it before. What did it mean? Then, more images emerged from the darkness and she knew.
Behind the newer chalkboards, the old chalkboards were still hanging. And what was even more amazing was that the writing and images were perfectly preserved on the old slate. Sherry knew the chalkboards behind the school’s current ones had to be old, but when she discovered just how old they were, tears rolled down her cheeks. She leaned closer to read.
“I give my head, my heart, and my life to my God, and one nation, indivisible, with justice for all,” one section read. Then, Sherry turned her attention to a drawing of a girl, blowing bubbles. The colors were so vivid that it could have been drawn yesterday. Along with the drawing of the little girl were other illustrations and a mysterious list of names.
“We’re not sure if that meant they were good students for the day, or they accomplished that. Or were their names up there because they were bad for the day?” Sherry wondered. Then, she saw another drawing. It had the days of the month written into a block, like a calendar. When she saw the date above it, she was floored.
The chalk calendar was dated 1917. Sherry couldn’t believe that these old drawings had remained intact for 100 years! It was like discovering a slice of American history, and it had been there on the wall, untouched until now. The chalk drawings and words offered an important insight into how classes were taught back then.
“The penmanship blows me away because you don’t see a lot of that anymore,” Sherry told the Oklahoman. “Some of the handwriting in some of these rooms is beautiful.” “I feel very blessed” Kishore added. “To be able to see what’s here and what’s been here all along, hiding behind a board. It just makes you feel more of a part of history.”
English teacher Cinthea Comer was blown away by the similarities between the teaching methods of present-day and the past: “They taught the pilgrims and it was pilgrim stuff in every single room, and it’s so cool that they were doing cross-curriculum teaching back in 1917 and now we’re trying to do it again.”
There were beautiful color drawings of ships, flowers, and birds. One board was filled with the ghostly outlines of pilgrims in their telltale attire, and another was adorned with a vivid orange turkey. “It was so eerie because the colors were so vibrant it looked like it was drawn the same day. To know that it was drawn 100 years ago… it’s like you’re going into a looking glass into the past,” Cinthea said, dumbfounded.
“The time that teachers must have spent preparing for their lessons is amazing to me,” Sherry said. But the biggest mystery of the hidden blackboards is why they were there in the first place. The drawings and lessons weren’t erased by the custodian, and the new blackboards were just placed over the old ones. Sherry believes it was intentional.
“You would have cleaned off your board so you could be ready the next day to come back and teach,” Read said. “So I think they left them on there on purpose to send a message to us, to say, ‘This is what was going on in our time.’” Written on the board was another important clue.
“We this day give this room slate blackboards,” says the note, signed R.J. Scott, the custodian of the school at the time. The school is currently trying to track down the family of the man to find out if the chalkboards were left intentionally. Meanwhile, Sherry knew she had to show the boards to her mother
Sherry’s 85-year-old mother, who is a retired school teacher herself, was in awe of the drawings that were frozen in time. “She just stood there and cried,” Sherry revealed. “She said it was exactly like her classroom was when she was going to school.”
“We don’t know if anybody knew about the plan, but now we get to reap the rewards of his plan and get to see this beautiful work of art. That’s all I can call it, a work of art. It should be in a museum somewhere,” Cinthea explained. “We can read about it all we want to, but this is like being able to touch history in the past,” Sherry Read, math teacher, added.
Now that the drawings and lessons had been found, the school was intent on preserving them. They immediately contacted the leading authorities for the best advice on how they could save this important piece of history. Historian Jeff Briley jumped at the chance to help, but it wouldn’t be easy.
“The idea that school children in that building this year could essentially look at something in their room that would give them a direct physical connection with a classroom scene from a hundred years ago, it’s magnificent,” Jeff said. Then, he proposed to build a protective wall around the old chalkboards to ensure that they didn’t get damaged during the completion of the renovations.
The wall will cost a whopping $26,000, but Tierney Tinnin with Oklahoma City Public Schools was in full agreement. “Even the vibration of a drill could actually damage the chalkboard, so it’s very important that we cover the entire wall from top to bottom,” he explains. “We need to continue the construction in the classroom and prepare for students,” he added. But will there be more old chalkboards on the other floors of the building?