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Tampa's St. Peter Claver, oldest operating Black primary school in Florida, hosting annual gala Saturday

A historic Black Catholic school in Southwest Florida is celebrating 128 years with its annual scholarship gala on Saturday evening.

(St. Peter Claver Catholic School)

St Peter Claver Catholic School, the longest-running Black elementary school in Florida, is celebrating its annual gala on Saturday, October 15 at 5pm ET in Tampa.

The event will be held in the Brady Center at the Academy of Holy Names, a second school co-founded in the city by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.

Sponsored by a host of local foundations and organizations, the event is scheduled to include a performance by students from the school, a cocktail hour, live music, casino games, and a silent auction.

Honorees for the night will include Community Impact Award recipient Col. Cherron R. Galluzzo of Texas, who serves as a senior flight nurse in the military, and Outstanding Alumni Award recipient Dr. Kermit Harvey, a local veterinarian in Tampa. Both awardees are known for their long-term support of the school.

The event will also honor the late Ed Gallagly, a local business owner and member of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church who died in 2009.

The gala will mark the 128th year of operation for the historic parish school, established in 1894 with the help of the Jesuits, whom Bishop John Moore of St. Augustine had invited to the diocese five years earlier.

They also established the church nearby in 1915, later staffed by the Josephites for more than six decades beginning in the early 20th century. The Divine Word Missionaries succeeded a lengthy diocesan administration last year.

The school was one of several Black Catholic institutions established under Moore’s episcopate, and faced various hurdles in its early years during the post-Reconstruction period. This included an arson event within 10 days of its founding, the fire having been set by local White Supremacists. The perpetrators left a note threatening further actions against the church and convent if a rebuild was attempted.

Rebuild they did that same year, this time in a Black neighborhood rather than White, and the school has continued ever since. The current edifice was constructed in 1929, and the student population now hovers at around 100 pupils each year.

"We're raising student achievement as well as building culture and rebuilding our school community," said school principal Dr. LaTonya White, shortly after taking over the job last fall in the wake of the school’s return to in-person learning.

“Catholic education went through a phase of drought. Because of those benefactors who understand the mission of Catholic education, many people sacrificed to ensure that we could continue.”

The school’s community support is buoyed in large part by the annual gala, which in 2021 raised $50,000 in tuition assistance. The report last year noted that many members of the student body live below the poverty line—as do more than a third of Black children in Tampa Bay.

“Providing a quality education for students regardless of their economic circumstances has been a hallmark of St. Peter Claver Catholic School since its founding in 1894,” the school said following last year’s event.

Tickets this year are priced at $100 per person and various donation options are also available. Both can be found on the school website here, and can also be obtained by email or phone.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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