The Smith Robertson School was the first public school ever built for African Americans in Jackson, Miss. The two-story wood school first opened in 1894 and was a place of teaching and learning for almost 200 years. While the original building burned to the ground in 1909, it was replaced by a brick structure built by a local African American contractor. In 1929, it received another upgrade when it was expanded and an art deco façade was added.
The school has deep historical significance. It was named after Smith Robertson, a slave born in Fayette, Ala., in 1847. He moved to Jackson after the Civil War and set up a barber shop, then went on to become the first African American alderman in the city’s history.
Another famous graduate graced its halls in 1925. Novelist Richard Nathaniel Wright graduated from the school. His time in Jackson and at the school was described in two of his most well-known books, Native Son and Black Boy.
During integration in 1971, the school closed and was left empty. But instead of knocking down the building, two local residents organized a campaign to save it and turn it into a museum. The museum opened in 1984 and has been showcasing the history and culture of African American people ever since. The museum is run by the city of Jackson, and it houses art, artifacts, and photographs that illustrate the lives, work, and art of African Americans.
All of this history was weighing heavily on Matthew Avery when he put in for a public bid to work on the school-turned-museum. Avery is the president of Airlock Insulation, a Jackson, Miss.-based company that provides commercial roofing, spray foam insulation, and crawlspace encapsulation and waterproofing solutions.
While Avery has worked with the city of Jackson before, he knew this job would have major historical significance.
The building was registered as a historic landmark both in Jackson and nationally. That meant all of the coatings had to be approved in two places.
“We had to go through the whole approval process of getting coating we were using in that application approved by the historical society,” Avery said. “It was a two-month process. First we had to get the coating system approved by the department of history and archives, then by the national historical registry. It took a while before we had to start; it was basically two months of emails and phone calls before we finally got it approved.”
The historic building also came with another complication that originated with its long lifespan. Its roof had 140-year-old coping blocks on top of it. The blocks are ceramic, and they are stacked on top of each other, Avery said. “They are all original and not replaceable, so you can’t find new ones,” he said.
That meant it was very important for Avery and his crew to protect the blocks. “We had to keeping from getting coating on those, as well as figure out how to seal them because over time the joints they’d used on it had failed,” he said.
To accomplish that, the crew used a black hot solid silicone to redress the sealing.
The job began in May 2015 and lasted 10 days. Avery used a crew of eight on the jobsite, which is about half of his Airlock Insulation company.
When they arrived on site, the crew had a demanding task in front of them. The roof had been damaged by a hail storm — that was actually the reason Airlock Insulation was hired for the job.
The building’s modified bitumen roof was 25 years old and its sheets were losing granules. All in all, the crew would have to repair 10,000 square feet (929.0 m²) of roof.
The historic nature of the building, as well as what was inside it, also complicated the job. The museum did not just want to completely take off and replace the roof. “They didn’t want to tear into it, to have to reroof a building like that,” Avery said. “If they did a tear off that would open up all the exhibits to the potential for damage.” Instead, the crew did a coating to repair the roof and protect the precious items inside.
Before beginning the coating process, the crew started out by pressure washing and “degreening” the existing roof system. “We cleaned off the granules, got the loose ones off the roof,” Avery said. They used a North Star pressure washer for that step.
Once that was done, they were ready to begin coating. First they put down Gaco Western E5320 Epoxy Primer, a two-component, water-borne epoxy coating. The crew applied a single pass at 10 mils (254 microns) thickness using a Graco 210ES sprayer.
Then they hand-coated the seams and around any penetrations.
Finally, they finished it off with Accella Roofing Solutions’ PolySil 2500, a 95 percent white silicone. The crew reached 40 mils (1,016.0 microns) in a single pass using a Graco X70T sprayer.
The jobsite was a flat roof building with a 3-foot (0.9 m) parapet wall. For safety, the crew used 3M respirators, goggles, gloves, and hooded suits. They also relied on Granite Industries scaffolding to access roof areas when necessary.
In the middle of the roof was an exposed glass atrium, which meant the crew had to work very carefully, Avery said. “We had overspray concerns, that we could accidentally damage the glass system,” he said. To work around that, the crew used spray shields and masked places off.
Protected for the Public
When the job was done it looked great, and Avery could be proud that he had contributed to his local community. Now, he said, he can always know that he helped preserve such an important piece of history — not just for his city but for people across the country.
“Having been born and raised in Jackson, it’s always nice to do something that had been there for 100 years,” Avery said. “Since it’s protected now, it will probably be there for another 100 years.”