Rosenwald Schools: Saving Part of Virginia’s Past Becomes a Modern-day Effort
CHESTER and MIDLOTHIAN, Va. – They opened doors to an education that had long been denied to many in the South. They offered a sense of community, and they inspired hope. For decades, they stood strong in the face of the struggle for educational equality, but now, these historic symbols are vanishing. Often unused and sometimes forgotten, thousands of Rosenwald schools have been erased by the ravages of time and by the changing landscapes that inevitably follow population ebb and flow. In the era between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, Rosenwald schools provided critical educational opportunities to African Americans in the South. More than 5,000 were built, including 367 in Virginia. The National Trust for Historic Preservation estimates that 10-12 percent of those built in the entire South remain standing today. Here in Virginia, Justin Sarafin, director of preservation initiatives and engagement with Preservation Virginia, estimates that roughly 30 percent of the Commonwealth’s Rosenwald schools remain standing. Also quietly slipping away are the memories of those who worked or received their education at Rosenwald schools. Like the buildings themselves, these stories cast a light on what it was like to live in an era where African American families had to fight for what is now considered a basic freedom in the United States – an education. Ongoing efforts to save these school buildings and to preserve the stories surrounding them inspired members of John Tyler Community College’s faculty to get involved. They reached out into the community and began collaborating with preservationists, historians and other educators on a number of projects tied to these historic sites. One of the biggest projects stems from a partnership with Preservation Virginia. Earlier this year, the organization and John Tyler co-hosted Saving Virginia’s Rosenwald Schools, an event that drew 75 people from across the Commonwealth to Tyler’s Chester Campus. Among the attendees were representatives from 16 Rosenwald schools, including alumni; preservationists; researchers; academics; students; and history buffs. They drove from as far away as Bath County and the Northern Neck, eager to share stories, exchange ideas, and discuss successes and failures in their personal efforts to preserve the memories and legacy of these schools. Speakers shared statistics about the schools, explained architectural elements that can help identify Rosenwald school buildings, showed clips of oral history interviews, and shared case studies on current preservation efforts. Attendees also were given the chance to exchange ideas during a round-table discussion.
“The original idea for the meeting was to have a small, working group to discuss how a Rosenwald school initiative might be developed; instead, by word of mouth, it turned into an auditorium-filling, full-fledged symposium,” explained Sarafin. “The main goal of the meeting remained the same for us, however: to glean knowledge and ideas from those who already have experience with Rosenwald schools in Virginia.” “When Justin approached me about collaborating on Preservation Virginia's statewide Rosenwald event and initiative, I was very excited,” said Dr. Alyce Miller, associate professor of history at John Tyler. “Judging from the attendance at the event and the reception we’ve received from communities throughout the state, there is a real need for such a project. It’s been so wonderful getting the opportunity to meet people throughout the state who are dedicated to preserving their Rosenwald schools and the histories of the people who learned and worked in them.” Those who attended the event echoed Miller’s sentiments. They agreed that the interest shown by attendees demonstrated a clear and strong need for a larger Rosenwald school preservation initiative. “Extraordinary, as well as encouraging, was the number of participants and the level of their enthusiasm for preserving Rosenwald schools…For me personally it was a tremendous learning experience and almost a spiritual awakening,” stated Dr. Wesley Wilson of the Woodville School in Gloucester County. Carole Campbell of Julius Rosenwald High School (Reedville) in Northumberland County said, “What a wonderful jolt of encouragement this gathering provided.” Marc Wagner, Capital Region Office Director for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, called the event “inspiring and uplifting! The meeting brought together one of the largest gatherings of Virginia Rosenwald School stakeholders that I have seen in one room to date. Through the strong encouragement of Preservation Virginia and JTCC, groups who hope to save these threatened resources are finding valuable resources.”
“Preservation Virginia really began the early stages of creating a statewide Rosenwald schools initiative a year ago while working to help save a school threatened with demolition; that effort led us to include Rosenwald schools in Virginia on our Most Endangered Historic Sites list for 2013,” stated Sarafin. “For us (as historic preservationists), the actual buildings are the sort of ‘entry point’ for how we got involved with the schools, but they are just one piece of the whole story that is about people, community, and the struggle for education equality,” he continued. “By identifying and, when possible, saving these schools and by preserving the stories of the people who relied on them, we are giving our students and all Virginians the opportunity to truly experience this important part of our history,” added Miller. “The story of the Rosenwald schools offers lessons from which we all can learn. ”Gerrick Waters, a John Tyler student who attended the Saving Virginia’s Rosenwald Schools event, agreed. “I found the presentation interesting because there are several Rosenwald schools in the area where I grew up,” he said. “I was raised in Lancaster County, located in the Northern Neck of Virginia. My parents and grandparents all attended Rosenwald schools during their school age years.” Waters is among several John Tyler students with an interest in preserving Rosenwald schools. Led by JTCC faculty, including Miller and Cris Silvent, assistant professor of art, several John Tyler students have visited a Rosenwald school, met Rosenwald alumni, and even observed oral history interviews related to the schools, all of which has provided them with new perspectives on what it was like in this real-life fight for educational access.
Dr. Edward “Ted” Raspiller, president of John Tyler Community College, says the efforts individuals and communities made to gain that access makes the Rosenwald schools project a natural fit for JTCC. “We at John Tyler Community College are quite pleased to be part of the Rosenwald schools effort,” he said. In his comments at the Saving Virginia’s Rosenwald Schools event, Raspiller emphasized the role of the community college as an anchor within communities and as an institution focused on increasing educational access and opportunities to traditionally underserved populations. “The beginnings of Rosenwald schools are quite similar to those of community colleges, whereby it was a combined effort of state, private, and local community support to get each one started, and the establishment of each one greatly increased educational opportunities within the communities in which they were built,” he said. “Today, community colleges have become the gateway for anyone wanting to get the necessary skills to take their rightful place on the path to prosperity and fulfilling the American dream.
”In addition to Preservation Virginia and JTCC, who co-hosted the event, representatives from other statewide agencies and organizations such as the Virginia Department of Historic Resources; the Virginia Association of Museums; Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU); Virginia State University; J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College; Germanna Community College; Dabney S. Lancaster Community College; the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia; Central Virginia History Researchers; and the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center attended the Saving Virginia’s Rosenwald Schools meeting to find out how they can support the effort. “The Department of Historic Resources (DHR) has been encouraging the recognition and preservation of the Rosenwald schools since the early 2000s with historic listing and highway marker placement,” said Wagner. “DHR is very interested in exploring a partnership with Preservation Virginia, one that would take the next step in a more formalized effort to create a stand-alone organization that could be the clearing house for preserving Virginia’s Rosenwald schools.
”In the semester that has followed the Saving Virginia’s Rosenwald Schools event, Miller and Silvent have been working with Sarafin and Preservation Virginia to map out the specifics of a multi-year, multi-phase preservation initiative that would empower individuals, groups and localities by providing them with the historic preservation tools and advice needed to help save the schools in their communities. Using input gathered at the meeting and feedback from the individuals and groups involved in the preservation of the structures and histories associated with Rosenwald schools in their communities, it was decided the project should begin with the “rediscovery” of these schools through architectural survey and an inventory of buildings. The effort would also include creating a web-based repository that would contain a wealth of information about all of Virginia’s Rosenwald schools, conducting oral history interviews of Rosenwald school alumni and employees, assessing how the schools might be restored or repurposed, and researching the history of the schools in the communities where they were built. Preservation Virginia and its partners hope this information will help identify new uses for the schools and promote economically sustainable preservation plans, so the buildings can once again thrive as educational and cultural anchors in their communities. It is also hoped the initiative, when finalized, will empower the people already involved in the Rosenwald effort, provide vital resource information, and inspire individuals and organizations to offer their support.
In a separate project, Miller and Silvent began a partnership in 2013 with Dr. Brian Daugherity, assistant professor of history at VCU, for a collaborative project related to the Rosenwald schools in Goochland County. Their work includes collecting oral histories from Rosenwald alumni and those who were affiliated with the schools (they’ve collected 23 of these interviews so far); conducting archival research into the schools; and assisting Second Union Rosenwald School, Inc. in preserving its school and turning it into a museum. When possible, students from John Tyler and VCU are invited to assist with or observe these efforts. The project, which Miller, Silvent and Daugherity hope to eventually turn into a book and a documentary, is being supported by grants from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the John Tyler Community College Foundation, and the Virginia Community College System. It is the desire to understand the struggle for educational equality and the impact these schools had on their students, their employees and their communities that drives Miller, Silvent, and Daugherity as they conduct their interviews. “In the voices of people who attended these schools, you can hear the real and personal effects that unequal facilities had on children and the ways in which the African American community fought hard to acquire educational opportunities for their children throughout Virginia in the 20th century,” says Miller. “This project will expand our understanding of the role that race played in shaping and determining educational opportunities in Virginia in the early twentieth century,” says Daugherity. “Importantly, it will also help to identify participants in the struggle for more equitable educational opportunities, to expand our understanding of the context of the struggle, and to preserve the memories of those involved.”
For more information about these Rosenwald schools projects, contact Dr. Alyce Miller with John Tyler Community College at firstname.lastname@example.org or 804-706-5254 or Mr. Justin Sarafin, with Preservation Virginia, at email@example.com or 804-648-1889 ext. 317. The complete press release can be found here.
John Tyler Community College is a two-year, public institution of higher education and is the fifth largest of the 23 community colleges in Virginia. With campuses in Chester and Midlothian and off-campus classrooms throughout the area, John Tyler offers quality and economical opportunities for students who want to earn a degree or certificate, transfer to a four-year college or university, train for the workforce, or switch careers. The College, which served more than 14,000 students during the 2012-13 academic year, offers 17 associate degrees, seven certificates, and 34 career studies certificates. The institution also serves more than 13,000 non-credit trainees and over 1,000 companies and government agencies annually through the Community College Workforce Alliance. The College also is committed to sustainability. In July 2010, it received a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver Certification for Hamel Hall on its Midlothian Campus, becoming the first in the Virginia Community College System to receive such recognition.
Preservation Virginia, a private non-profit organization and statewide historic preservation leader founded in 1889, is dedicated to perpetuating and revitalizing Virginia's cultural, architectural and historic heritage thereby ensuring that historic places are integral parts of the lives of present and future generations. Our mission is directly consistent with and supportive of Article XI of the Constitution of Virginia, benefiting both the Commonwealth and the nation. Preservation Virginia provides leadership, experience, influence, and services to the public and special audiences by saving, managing, and protecting historic places, and developing preservation policy, programs, and strategies with individuals, organizations, and local, state, and national partners.
Justin Sarafin, Director of Preservation Initiatives and Engagement