The dark clouds of oppression, segregation and poverty that have loomed over the Augusta Avenue area for more than a century lifted during the dedication of the new Otis J. Brock III Elementary School on Friday.

“Today is a grand day. Today is a bold and courageous day,” Brock Elementary Principal Maggie Walker-Zeigler said before she joined Brock’s widow, parents and young children for the ceremonial ribbon-cutting. “But most of all it is a day of celebration for a young man of action, Otis J. Brock.”

Otis Brock III was the Savannah-Chatham Public School System’s operations chief who oversaw the district’s mammoth education sales tax-funded construction program called ESPLOST. In 2012, Brock died of a heart attack just before the district embarked on its second ESPLOST building campaign. He was 41.

Brock, a Savannah native, worked his way up in the district. After 14 years he had become one of the school system’s highest ranking African-American administrators. Although disputes over multimillion dollar ESPLOST contracts often became racially and politically divisive, Brock used his humor, optimism and easygoing manner to quell discord and foster cooperation.

“Otis helped us prove that we can have meaningful minority participation and get the work done on time and within budget,” said Miguel Camacho of Brownstone Construction, which served as the minority partner of Elkins Constructors on the Pulaski, Gadsden, Hodge and Brock School projects during the ESPLOST I and II construction campaigns.

Brock never lived in the Augusta Avenue area or attended the school named in his honor. He didn’t even work on plans for its construction. But officials gave the school his name because the community needed something to smile about.

A horse race track known as Ten Broeck Course once ran through a portion of the school grounds. Over the course of two cold and rainy days in 1857, some 436 enslaved men, women, children and infants of color were auctioned off at the Broeck Track for $303,850. It was the largest sale of human beings in U.S. history and resulted in the breakup of so many families it became known as “the weeping time.”

Fifty-three years later, a school for black students was built on the mega-slave auction site. Adding insult to symbolic injury, school board segregationists named the school after Frances Stebbins Bartow — a wealthy Savannah slaveowner. Bartow was a secessionist who selected the Confederate Army’s gray color scheme and was among the first of Georgia’s elitist class to die for the right to enslave black people.

A desegregation mandate in the 1980s led to the creation of an advanced learning magnet program at the school and it enjoyed a period of academic success and diversity. But in 1994 the desegregation order was lifted and the program phased out, leaving it to become one of the district’s poorest performing schools with nearly all low income minority students. It is now one of six local schools targeted for state takeover.

On Friday the crowd that stood beneath the clear blue sky at the new Otis J. Brock III School was focused on making the school’s future just as bright and beautiful as its namesake and new campus.

“Mr. Brock gave his best at all times,” said School Board Member Ruby Jones. “This school will be a reminder to us of how great he was.”


Brittany Grabski