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reReflector 03: Preserving the History of Black Education

people gather outside around a grounds marker

by Niya Bates; featured photo credit by author

Thirteen miles northeast of Charlottesville, an unassuming, one-story, white school building with two front doors on either side of a gabled vestibule sits across a paved parking lot from the historic St. John Baptist Church. Though the church has existed there since 1880, the present church building was built in 1919, and added onto over the years. The elementary school was built by members of the community in 1923 to replace an older, one-room schoolhouse that had previously served the community in the years immediately after emancipation (1865). These two buildings are the heart of Cobham’s Black community, where generations of the Byrd, Chapman, Dickerson, Kinney, Mahanes, Payne, and a dozen other families came to be spiritually and intellectually fed. A recent article, “The Reverend Speaks of Roots & Robes,” by Vinegar Hill Magazine’s editor, Katrina Spencer, speaks to the influential and important role that Black churches have played in African American history and culture. However, the focus of this installation of the (re)Reflector column is our historic Black primary schools and efforts to save the ones that still stand today.

a schoolhouse

St. John Rosenwald School in Cobham, Virginia. Photo credit: Niya Bates

During the Reconstruction Era (1865- 1877), in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861- 1865), the Freedmen’s Bureau, the government agency that was responsible for assisting and protecting newly freed Black Americans and active from 1865 until its unceremonious abandonment by Congress in 1872, established Virginia’s first statewide, free public education system. The Freedmen’s schools only served Black students. Because education for enslaved people had been illegal in some places and highly discouraged elsewhere, children, their parents, and sometimes even grandparents crammed into what were often one-roomed, simple, wooden buildings to learn to read and write. In 1870, Virginia expanded free public education to include all residents. But, the ascendance of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist politics drastically slowed the expansion of schooling for Black communities, especially in rural areas.

students in a one-room classroom

Students and their teacher, possibly Ethel Nicholas or Bernice Ferguson, at the Cismont Training School, not dated. Source: Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society

By the 1910s, there were wide gaps in schooling between white and Black students throughout the country. White enrollment in public schools had skyrocketed after federal Reconstruction started in 1865. Yet, school enrollment in the South continued to lag behind the rest of the country, and Black schools rarely received adequate public funding for school buildings, teachers, or books. Booker T. Washington, who was a graduate of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) and founder of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University), partnered with Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist and co-owner of Sears Roebuck, to establish a fund to support constructing school buildings throughout the South. From 1917- 1932, the Rosenwald Foundation supported the construction of over 5,300 schools, shop buildings, and teachers’ houses. In the later years of its operation, the Rosenwald Foundation also provided grants to Black scholars, writers, and artists including photographer Gordon Parks, opera contralto Marian Anderson, writer Ralph Ellison, and poet laureate Rita Dove. The one-of-a-kind partnership between Tuskegee University and the Rosenwald Foundation resulted in modern, state-of-the-art school building plans that were designed by Black Tuskegee architects and distributed to communities throughout the country. Community participation was written into the rural school building fund, and in order to receive funding and school plans, public school boards were required to contribute their own funding in addition to any money contributed by local Black communities and the Rosenwald Foundation. The Tuskegee-Rosenwald program supported the construction of 382 schools and support buildings in 79 counties in Virginia. Most of them were open until Virginia’s school systems were forced to integrate after the 1950s’ era of Massive Resistance, which was an attempt by Virginia lawmakers to circumvent school integration that resulted in the closure of Charlottesville City Schools in 1958. 

The school plans were designed to be replicable so that as many communities as possible could have well built schools. Tuskegee architect Robert Robinson Taylor created a distinctive and now iconic layout of banked windows to capture the most daylight while reducing glare on student desks inside the classrooms. Sliding, accordion-style partitions allowed for multiple activities or classes to exist within the same space without distraction. One, two, and three-room school plans featured doors and windows that were positioned to create cross-ventilation and air flow. Shop buildings provided workspace for normal and technical education, which was intended to prepare students for work in the skilled trades within their communities. Teachers’ housing provided accommodations for educators to move into, often in isolated, rural communities, to live near their students.

When school integration shuttered Tuskegee-Rosenwald schools and other historically Black schools throughout the country, local Black communities became the first to rally to save them. In Albemarle County, St. John School and Cismont Training Schools were converted to private homes. Yancey Elementary School and Jefferson School became community centers. Others, like the Rose Hill Elementary School in Milton, sat vacant under the watchful care of the churches next door while people dreamed of having the resources to restore and rehabilitate them for other uses. Even with their herculean efforts, many of these important historic schools fell into disrepair and neglect as children and their families moved away in search of better opportunities, marriage prospects, and exposure to new places.

In the past decade, historic preservationists – people who work in the professional field dedicated to saving historic buildings and landscapes and enthusiasts from all walks of life – have begun working earnestly to save historic Black schools. Preservation Virginia, Virginia’s statewide historic preservation education and advocacy group, listed all of Virginia’s surviving Tuskegee-Rosenwald schools among the state’s most endangered historic resources in 2013. Because the Tuskegee-Rosenwald schools were part of a well known building campaign with a distinctive architectural style, they have benefitted the most from new preservation initiatives. However, all historic Black schools are invaluable resources in the telling of Virginia’s history. While I can’t highlight all of the projects here, I want to share a few notable examples and encourage readers to get involved with this movement.

St. John School

people stand near a ground marker

St. John School alumni at the dedication ceremony for their historic highway marker in 2016. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Kinney

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Kelvin Hawkins, Pastor of St. John Baptist Church, and Rebecca Kinney, an alumna of the St. John School, about their ongoing effort to restore the school and convert it into a family life and fitness center. The church purchased the school in 2003. Since then, Pastor Hawkins and Rebecca Kinney have formed a non-profit organization to leverage grant funding from Preservation Piedmont and the Building Goodness Foundation. This year, the St. John School is celebrating its 100th year, and Pastor Hawkins is brimming with enthusiasm to commemorate the occasion. Hawkins, whose mother attended the St. John School before going to high school at Albemarle Training School, said he was initially anxious about preserving such an important and overlooked part of Cobham’s history. He says, “a conversation with Jim Hare of Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources reassured us. He told us to split the project into phases, which is exactly what made us so successful.” Ms. Kinney’s mother also attended St. John in the first years that it was open and Rebecca was part of the last class to attend once schools integrated. When asked what she hopes people take away from visiting St. John, she replied, “I hope that things like our memorial patio and the restored classrooms will tell a story of how everyone was involved. It took a village to build it back then. Everyone was involved.” Additionally, she hopes for St. John School and the history of Booker T. Washington’s partnership with Julius Rosenwald to become part of our local K-12 curriculum. Speaking on the legacy of the school, Ms. Kinney remarked, “A school that was intended to keep us separate will unite us and sustain the community.” They will celebrate the school’s 100th anniversary later this fall once restoration work has been completed.

Pine Grove School

a school amongst trees

Pine Grove School in Cumberland County, Virginia. Photo credit: Niya Bates

While communities like Cobham (home of the St. John School), Charlottesville (home of the Jefferson School), and Esmont (home of the Yancey School), have had the luxury of time to be strategic in their preservation journey, others have been forced into action because of immediate threats. Such is the case for the Pine Grove School in Cumberland County, where alumna Muriel Miller Branch, her daughter Sonja, and a dedicated team of family, friends, and allies have come together to fight back against a planned mega landfill. 

people stand indoors near an exhibit

Pine Grove School Alumni pose next to a history exhibit in the school after readying the classrooms for an event. Photo credit: Niya Bates

Pine Grove School was one of five Tuskegee-Rosenwald Schools that was constructed in Cumberland County. The two-room school served grades one through seven with students seated by age and grade level. Mrs. Branch attributes her lifelong success as an educator and writer to the headstart that she received at Pine Grove when her teacher, Mrs. Gilliam, allowed her to join her older siblings at school a year before she was eligible to enroll. Branch formed the AMMD Pine Grove Project non-profit in 2018 to purchase the school and mount an environmental justice campaign against the Green Ridge Landfill. What originally started as a project to reclaim her family’s history in deeply rural Cumberland County, has evolved into a fight for the soul of historic preservation. Her daughter, Sonja Branch-Wilson, recently completed a fellowship with Preservation Virginia and is pioneering new ways to collect Black rural history through digitizing church programs and obituaries. They have already made an indelible impact by coining the “Tuskegee-Rosenwald” moniker that I have used throughout this story. In April, just after Booker T. Washington’s birthday, the AMMD Pine Grove Project erected a historic marker and celebrated the occasion with alumni and dozens of supporters. They have even formed a Youth Council to serve as tour guides of the site. Next, they plan to undertake the slow and tedious work of creating a rural historic district. 

Each of the two schools above and their respective communities of alumni and descendants are working against the clock to preserve not only their school buildings, but the rural communities who built and depended on them. As Pastor Hawkins remarked in our conversation, the Tuskegee-Rosenwald Schools are an important part of United States history. Many living alumni of these schools are now in their 70s and 80s, and the time to collect their stories is now. Readers can get involved by recording oral histories of the elders in their communities; volunteering at the St. John School, Pine Grove School, Jefferson School, and others; and donating time and resources to the organizations that are preserving the history of Black schools. Lastly, schools like Pine Grove that are facing environmental justice battles, need community members to lobby elected officials for stronger environmental protections in vulnerable rural communities and for more robust investment in historic preservation.


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