Reclaiming Segregation-Era, African American Schoolhouses: Building on Symbols of Past Cooperation

Article excerpt

This article explores the significance of segregation-era African American schoolhouses and the efforts of community groups engaged in their preservation. Beyond preservation and the creation of local history museums, groups also desire to use these facilities as spaces to house various community meetings and activities. Using research methodology based on anthropological fieldwork, the author discusses the work of two community groups-Bealsville, Inc., in Bealsville, Florida, and the Iota Upsilon Lambda chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. in Silver Spring, Maryland-and their independent efforts to preserve, rehabilitate, and reclaim segregation-era schoolhouses.

INTRODUCTION

Like chimneys standing in the cold ashes of a tragic fire, the old buildings endure in towns and rural communities across the southeastern United States. A few have been reincarnated as textbook warehouses, old-age homes, or cut-and-sew factories. More commonly, though, they sit vacant and deteriorating in older Black neighborhoods. (Cecelski, 1994, p. 7)

The "old buildings" described above are the remains of segregation-era, African American schoolhouses. In 1913, Julius Rosenwald, a Sears Company executive, instituted a program to help finance small schools for African Americans across the South, with the aid of Booker T. Washington. When Rosenwald died in 1932, it is reported that he had contributed $4.4 million (Werner, 1939, p. 133) to help build "5,357 public schools, shops, and teachers' homes" in "883 counties of fifteen southern states" between 1913 and 1932 (Bullock, 1967, p. 139). Many of these structures are at a crucial time in their existence. Because of age and deterioration, community members must decide whether to let these buildings fade away, or to invest the time and resources that are necessary to restore them. Although frequently inadequate for reuse as modern schools, these buildings are valued for their historical symbolism. They are also valued for the space that they provide for community-organizing efforts-specifically, tutorial centers, heritage museums, and meeting places.

Noting the historical importance, public interest, and the decreasing number of Rosenwald schools, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) placed them on their 2002 list of "America's 11 Most Endangered Historical Sites." The NTHP has also started a "Rosenwald Initiative" with goals of "developing and publishing public education materials; developing and launching a Web site on Rosenwald schools; developing a network of individuals and organizations working toward documentation and preservation of Rosenwald schools and continued fundraising to meet the goals of the initiative" (America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, 2002, p. 13; NTHP, n.d. ).

Following its first Rosenwald school conference at Fisk University in May 2004, there have been several, independent, grassroots efforts by individuals and organizations that are giving new life to these old buildings. In this article, the work of two community groups-Bealsville, Inc., in Bealsville, Florida, and the Iota Upsilon Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. in Silver Spring, Maryland and their independent efforts to preserve, rehabilitate, and reclaim segregation-era schoolhouses will be discussed. These organizations are engaged in preserving African American landmarks of great importance to the local history of their communities and to the broader histories of African American education and self-reliance. By preserving these symbolic structures, these organizations seek to resurrect and display this heritage and to provide venues where activities can occur to supplement the process of formal education with inspiring accounts of African American educational values and achievement.

EDUCATION AND AFRICAN AMERICAN ETHNOGENESIS

A commitment to the values and benefits of education constitutes a "core value" (Franklin, 2002) of African American "ethnogenesis" (Greenbaum, 2002). …