News / USA

Hidden History Saves African-American Schoolhouse

Slated for demolition, abandoned Georgia school gets reprieve

Rosenwald one-room schools had a standard floor plan, featuring high ceilings to keep the building cool, large windows to let in the light, and chalk boards along one wall of the classroom. Historians are unsure whether the Harrington School (above) was a
Rosenwald one-room schools had a standard floor plan, featuring high ceilings to keep the building cool, large windows to let in the light, and chalk boards along one wall of the classroom. Historians are unsure whether the Harrington School (above) was a

Multimedia

Audio
Philip Graitcer

When the tiny African-American community on Georgia’s St. Simons Island set out to save its one-room schoolhouse, it didn't realize the building was linked to an historic effort to combat racial discrimination in the early 20th century.



The Harrington School doesn’t look like much. The abandoned building is surrounded by a rusty metal fence. The roof has holes in it, some wooden siding has fallen off, and it badly needs a coat of paint.

The school looked so dilapidated that, two years ago, community leaders and even the local historical society had given up hope it could be saved.

Fond memories

“They said that the building just wasn’t worth saving and you could just look at it and tell it was going to fall any minute, so let’s just tear it down,” says Amy Roberts, who has lived on St. Simons Island all her life and has fond memories of the school.

She attended first grade there in 1953, and remembers lessons in and out of the classroom.

Amy Roberts launched a campaign to save the Harrington school, which now sits empty.
Amy Roberts launched a campaign to save the Harrington school, which now sits empty.

“How many children can say that they went to school and it was out in the yard and they saw a caterpillar do the cocoon thing, and then you waited so many days and then you saw a butterfly.”

Proud history

Harrington was built in 1925 as a one-room schoolhouse for St. Simons’ African-American community, since segregation laws of the time banned black students from attending school with white children.

Hundreds of the island’s black children went to elementary school at Harrington until 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled classrooms had to be integrated. Students were transferred to the island’s other, formerly whites-only, elementary school.

Harrington continued to be used for social activities and a day care center, but by 1970, it was abandoned. The vacant building soon became an eyesore, and developers began to eye the property.

Preserved heritage

Concerned that the school might be torn down, Roberts started the African-American Heritage Coalition to preserve the island’s heritage.

“If it’s not done, if it’s not saved, then eventually you would not know that we existed here on St. Simons," she says. "Everything of African-American heritage has been torn down.”

In 2009, despite years of effort by the coalition, Harrington was slated for demolition.

But weeks before demolition, Patty Deveau, a historian who lives St. Simons, took a closer look at the building. She realized the old schoolhouse was part of a bigger piece of history: a massive 1920s philanthropic movement called the Rosenwald Fund.

Surprise discovery

Its purpose, explains Georgia historian Jeanne Cyriaque, was to promote small community schools as a way for African-Americans to get an education.

"At the very core of that movement was the involvement of the community, sympathetic whites, and philanthropy, merging together to do what today we’d call partnerships,” she says.

Julius Rosenwald, the man behind that partnership, headed the retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Co. In 1915, he donated start-up money to encourage African-American communities to build their own schools.

By the late 1920s, the fund had contributed to more than 5,000 educational buildings in 15 states across the South and one in three rural black children was attending a Rosenwald school.

There’s no record of whether the Harrington School actually was a Rosenwald school, but Cyriaque says its design and community location make it a model of what the fund was trying to do.

Preservation architects evaluated the building and found it to be in sound structural shape.
Preservation architects evaluated the building and found it to be in sound structural shape.

“This particular school kind of embodies to me what was going on with the communities at that time, because in many African-American communities, it was African-American families that gave land for these schools to be built.”

Besides land, African-American communities donated labor and materials, and the county government contributed teachers and money.

Since it was part of both the island’s African-American heritage and the Rosenwald legacy, supporters believed it was now doubly important to save the Harrington School.

Restoration plans

The local historical society commissioned preservation architects to evaluate the building. Roberts was surprised by their findings.

“They went through it and they talked about how sound it was; and how, you know, they’d never seen anything like this," she says. "I mean, it was, like, in great shape.”

After that, plans to demolish the building were scrapped. And now, architects are developing restoration plans and the community is making suggestions about how the building will be used. Roberts dreams about what the new Harrington School will be like someday.

“It’s gonna be a lot of things. It could be a building that may be a place where school kids can come and visit and find out what life was like in a one-room schoolhouse. It would also let folk know that there were three African communities on St. Simons and talk about those three communities, talk about the Georgia Sea Island Singers and when they got started and where they got started, which was right in the Harrington community. Talk about the family that was the family of carpenters that built most of the houses on St. Simons."

And maybe there will be a caterpillar or two in the front yard for a science lesson.

You May Like

China Investigates Former Powerful Security Chief

Former security chief and member of Politburo Standing Committee, Zhou Yongkang, under investigation for suspected 'serious disciplinary violation' More

India, US Look to Reset Ties During Kerry Visit

This week's talks will be first high level interaction between two countries since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge More

Video Young African Leadership Program Renamed to Honor Mandela

YALI program, launched by President Obama in 2010, aims to build skills in business, entrepreneurship, public management and civic leadership More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spati
X
Reasey Poch
July 28, 2014 7:18 PM
China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video ESA Spacecraft to Land on a Comet

After a long flight through deep space, a European Space Agency probe is finally approaching its target -- a comet millions of kilometers away from earth. Scientists say the mission may lead to some startling discoveries about the origins of the water on earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Africans Arrive in US for Leadership Program

President Barack Obama's Young African Leadership Initiative has brought hundreds of young Africans to the United States for a six-week program aimed at building their knowledge and skills in fields such as public administration and business. Out of the 50,000 young Africans who applied for the program, just one percent was accepted. VOA's Laurel Bowman caught up with some of those who made the cut and has this report.
Video

Video In Honduras, Amnesty Rumors Fuel US Migration Surges

False rumors in Central America are fueling the current surge of undocumented young people being apprehended at the U.S. border. The inaccurate claims suggest the U.S. will give amnesty to young migrants from the region. As VOA's Brian Padden reports from Honduras, these rumors trace back to President Obama's 2012 executive order to halt deportations for some young undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid