Wortham Gymnasium front elevation
One of two buildings constructed by the WPA in the African American community of Oak Grove, the gymnasium is “…an example of a simple but handsomely balanced design which reveals the skill of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers” (Story, 1990). The school principal from 1932-1935, Mr. Vines, received a grant to use WPA labor to construct a home economics cottage. Shortly after approval, the 1925 Rosenwald funded school in the community burned, and Mr. Vines sought a new administration/classroom building as well. L. W. Johnson, principal in 1935, worked with county superintendent Basil Munn to obtain a new gymnasium for students in Oak Grove.
“The building which resulted was not only a large and impressive structure; at the time, it was only the second gymnasium for blacks in the state of Arkansas and it was the largest gymnasium in the state” (Story). The gymnasium was the first high school gym for black students in Arkansas (Smith & Joshua, 2003). The professional basketball team New York Renaissance Big Five (RENS), archrivals to the Harlem Globetrotters, played the A. M., & N college team in the Wortham gym (Gatewood, 2000).
Although commonly indicated as completed in 1935, the records in the National Archives show the proposal for the gymnasium was submitted and approved in 1938, and completed in 1939 (Gatewood). The WPA granted $8,954 and the school district provided $3,680. Resident C. C. Bazzelle provided a portion of the lumber for the gym from his stand of “school trees” (Gatewood, p. 128). The gym was named in honor of Nevada County judge from 1929-1935 Roger Q. Wortham who supported education efforts in Oak Grove (Gatewood).
Although the interior was “almost completely intact” in 1990, including the original bleachers, columns, interior strip sheathing, stairwells, and ticket window, which were “preserved and in good condition” (Story), the building has significantly deteriorated since. The roof has collapsed, although the exterior walls remain intact. The Oak Grove Civic League received a restoration grant for $10,000 in 1998 for the gym. It is unknown what happened after that time, but the League is no longer in operation.
Gatewood, W. B. (2000) Wortham gymnasium. In M. K. Christ and C. H. Slater, eds. Sentinels of History: Reflections on Arkansas Properties on the National Register of Historic Places. University of Arkansas Press. Smith, C. C., & Joshua, L. W. (2003). Educating the masses: The unfolding history of black school administrators in Arkansas 1900-2000. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press. Story, K. (1990). Nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places. Retrieved from http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/historic-properties/_search_nomination_popup.aspx?id=145
Project originally submitted by Susan Allen on August 19, 2014.
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