Paul Robeson Academy was originally built in 1907 (additions in 1916, 1918, and 1921) as the St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys. St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys was built on a sprawling 19-acre lot that was located at 2701 Fenkell Avenue at the corner of Linwood Street, on Detroit’s upper west side. St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys was an all brick, five-story structure that was designed by noted architect Albert Kahn in a beautiful Georgian style appeal.
The façade of the building featured stone accents throughout and twin peaks on each end of the building, that rose above the building’s roofline. The interior of St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys featured residents living quarters, the nun dormitories, offices, an infirmary, a library, a swimming pool, a chapel, and a gymnasium. St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys served as a orphanage home for young boys whose families were unable or unwilling to care for them. Many of the boys living there had also been sent there by the State of Michigan because of developmental or disciplinary problems. St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys was run by the Catholic Archdiocese and the Catholic nuns were literally responsible for hundreds of adolescent boys that lived at the orphanage. St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys was in operation for nearly 75 years and helped approximately 15,000 young boys find a family and become productive members of society.
In 1992, the State of Michigan shut down St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys for violations of codes, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. Many of the former residents of St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys talk about the true horror that went on behind closed doors at St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys. Shortly after St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys closed, Detroit Public Schools purchased the property and decided to open their latest and greatest program, Paul Robeson Academy, inside of the former St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys.
Paul Robeson Academy was the first public school program in America to have an Afro-centric curriculum and was designed to provide “culturally responsive teaching techniques that prepare students both academically and culturally to become productive citizens of the 21st Century.” Paul Robeson Academy was very successful and continually had enrollment at around 900 students each year from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Paul Robeson Academy was named after Mr. Paul Robeson, who was an influential African-American singer, actor, and social activist. Alumni of Paul Robeson Academy were known as “Paul Robeson Eagles,” as their school mascot was an eagle. Paul Robeson Academy was a property of the Detroit Public School system.
On May 13, 2011, a fire broke out in the attic of Paul Robeson Academy and quickly spread throughout the entire top floor. The Detroit Fire Department struggled to put out the blaze (low water pressure) and by the time they had control, the damage had already been done. Most of Paul Robeson Academy had been ruined by the fire, smoke, and the water damage. Detroit Public Schools was forced to evacuate the school and they moved the Paul Robeson program to another school. The former Paul Robeson Academy was left abandoned, as nobody was allowed back into the school to retrieve belongings because it had become a dangerous and condemned site. Everything was left behind from the day of the fire, as if the classrooms were stuck in a time capsule.
By 2012, as Detroit Public Schools was trying to sell the massive, half-burnt structure, scrappers began to pick apart the former school building. Soon enough, the former Paul Robeson Academy had no windows, doors, fixtures, desks, chairs, and other furnishings as the scrappers had nearly hauled everything of value out of the building. The former Paul Robeson Academy became a huge eye sore and something needed to be done. Detroit Public Schools decided that the nearly 90 year-old building would have to be demolished.
In 2012, the former Paul Robeson Academy and one-time, historic St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys was demolished.
As of 2015, a large vacant lot sits where the building once stood.