In 1891, the Orange Park Normal and Industrial School was established by the American Missionary Association of New York (AMA), an abolitionist organization working to educate Black students in the post-Civil War era. The private school quickly earned a reputation for excellence, prompting white students to begin attending and making it the only integrated school in the state by 1894. In 1893, William N. Sheats, a vocal opponent of school integration, became state superintendent of public instruction. He began a decades-long campaign against the school, which would ultimately lead to it being shut down.
As a delegate to the Florida Constitutional Convention of 1885, Sheats wrote the passage of Article XII, Section 12, which declared that Black and white students could not be educated together. In 1894, after learning about the integrated Orange Park School, he began to lobby the Legislature to pass laws to “protect educated blacks in the right to teach their own race.” He was successful, and in 1895, “Sheats Law” was passed, which targeted the Oak Park school specifically. It stated that white teachers could not instruct Black students, and that white and Black students could not be educated at the same school – even if it was private. It carried a $500 fine or three- to six-months of imprisonment for any violations.
At the beginning of the school year in 1895, Sheats threatened the school and its faculty, but the AMA was undeterred. Sheats persisted in his efforts and in April 1896 the principal, five teachers, white patrons, and a local minister were arrested for violating the law against integrated education. A month later, the state attorney ordered the sheriff to investigate and to arrest and rearrest any teachers in violation on a daily basis. The school closed its doors for the remainder of the school year. The AMA then asked the Fourth Judicial Circuit of Florida to stop the indictment against the teachers. Judge R. M. Call ruled that the Sheats Law was a violation of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, allowing the school to reopen.
Despite this legal victory, the damage was done. White parents feared sending their children to the school and by 1906 had established a high school for white students, leaving little need for an integrated school. Sheats lost his election as state superintendent of instruction and was out of office until his reelection in 1912. In 1913, legislation was passed once again forbidding white teachers to instruct Black students, and the integrated Orange Park Normal and Industrial School was closed for good.