‘It’s devastating’: Community reacts to Ferry Street School fire

Published 10:00 am Saturday, May 13, 2023

NILES — A Friday morning fire destroyed a historic building in the Historic Ferry Street Neighborhood, leaving a large gap in one of the community’s most prominent corners.

The Ferry Street School building, currently home to Ferry Street resource Center, caught fire and collapsed in spite of the Niles Fire Department’s best efforts to save it.

“It’s devastating,” said Niles History Center Director Christina Arseneau. “I’m heartbroken over it. It’s such a historically important building and to lose it… It did so much good for the community and I felt a big piece of that was tied to its history. It was built as this place for people to educate their kids to feel safe. It’s been a point of pride in the community for many years and it transitioned to helping people in the community. Losing it is just devastating.”

Constructed in 1867 at a cost of nearly $3,000, the Ferry Street School opened in January 1868 as Niles’s school for “colored children.” In 1870, the Niles school system was integrated, and the facility closed. It reopened as an integrated school in 1873, with the west wing added in 1903.

Joan Schmidt has fond memories of the Ferry Street School building. A Niles native, Schmidt attended Ferry Street School as a third grade student. 

“We would eat in there and the whole bit,” she said. “We had a playground out in the back and slides and all that kind of stuff and played marbles. I was the marble champ. The girls did other stuff but I played marbles with the guys.” 

From 1956 to 1975, the School for Exceptional Children was located here. In 1975, concerned citizens began restoring the original building to its nineteenth century style. The building received a historical marker in 1980 from the state’s Michigan History Division.

For several years, the building has been home to the Ferry Street Resource Center, which assists area residents in securing resources and to provide educational and life-enrichment programs and activities, with a goal of bridging existing educational, cultural and societal gaps that exist within the community. 

According to the Niles History Center, the Ferry Street Historic Neighborhood is bordered by 5th and 9th and Ferry and Sycamore Streets. The area was settled in the 1850s by African American families. Several families built homes on Ferry Street. One of these homes was the residence of Charlotte “Lottie” Wilson, a prominent artist whose work was displayed at the White House. Wilson’s father, Calvin Wilson, was the chairman of the Colored Citizens of Niles, a group of African American Niles residents who raised money to build the Ferry Street School.

Lottie Wilson also participated in civil rights activism on the national stage. Buildings in the historic neighborhood include:

  • Franklin A.M.E. Church – 9th and Sycamore Streets
  • Ferry Street Resource Center, which was built as a “Colored” one-room schoolhouse – 7th and Ferry Streets
  • Prince Hall Mason Lodge, formerly Harrison Lodge, the first African American Mason’s Lodge in Michigan – 7th and Ferry Streets
  • Mount Calvary Baptist Church, formerly Second Baptist Church – 6th and Ferry Streets

Bryant Bacon has been pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist for 20 years. FSRC began in 2005 through his church before expanding into what it is today. “I think the work can go on but the building symbolized the ideal and vision of what it was designed to do, so I think that is going to be a negative aspect of it,” he said. “It’s a historical site, so it’s going to be a missed entity in the community.”

Bacon is currently a member of the Ferry Street Resource Board. He said the board plans to meet Tuesday for its scheduled meeting to discuss its next steps.