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Newport Museum Opens at Historic Southgate Street School

All along the Newport riverfront, new development dominates the sights - hotels, apartment buldings, bars & restaurants, attractions.

But tucked away on a cobblestone street, one historic building still stands.

And now, it will stand as a testament to Newport history. 

In 1870, the City of Newport purchased land to create a school to educate black students in the city.

In 1893, a two-level building was constructed on Southgate Street for the same purpose. Each room housed two grades, and black students attended until 1955 when schools across the country were desegregated.

Southgate School closed but its connection to the black community continues to this day. The building was purchased by the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge 120 and African-American Masons still hold their meetings and rituals on the second level.

On the first level, a new operation is open.

The Newport History Museum at the Southgate Street School celebrated its grand opening on Wednesday.

Operated by the Newport Foundation, a new nonprofit, the City of Newport and students from Northern Kentucky University's master of public history program worked to create the inaugural exhibit, a nod to the school building's history and some of Newport's connections to gambling.

Items are on display in cases that were donated by the Cincinnati Museum Center to the Campbell County Public Library and then to the new museum. Detailed research adorns the walls, setting the scenes and telling the stories.

NKU graduate students were hard at work on Tuesday when The River City News visited.

"It was a good opportunity for us to see from the beginning to the opening of an exhibit," said student Nora Eskridge. Students in the program guided by Dr. Brian Hackett were placed in various roles leading up to Wednesday's launch. They worked on exhibit design, educational components, management of the collection, and how to exhibit. "We learned tat this is a process and everyone has to work together and lean on each other for the work," said Eskridge. 

The students were awarded a $1,500 grant from the Newport East Row neighborhood and a $1,500 matching grant from the Scripps Howard Center at NKU.

Masonic tradition is to lay a cornerstone at a new building, said Scott Clark, the City of Newport's historic preservation officer who is also charged with running the museum. Rolf Monument is donating a cornerstone to be placed at the site.

The building is still a work in progress but the exterior will soon be spruced up by CRG Residential, which agreed to do the work as part of its deal to construct a new residential development where the old 4th Street School still stands (it will be torn down).

As development continues along the riverfront, the Southgate School will continue to stand as a symbol of the past.

"It's a testament to historic preservation and the current nature of Newport," Clark said. "We are constantly seeing change and yet we still have a strong footing in our history."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher