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An historic school built for African Americans in 1925 is restored and reopened in St. George, S.C. as a community center and museum. It will share the stories of those who created it and were educated there. Painted bright white with a red, tin roof, the St. George Rosenwald school in Dorchester County looks new. Inside, former student Clara Britt is excited to sit behind a small, wooden desk again.“I never thought that this would happen,” says Britt, giggling like a schoolgirl. She’s about to turn 102-year...
Painted bright white with a red, tin roof, the St. George Rosenwald school in Dorchester County looks new. Inside, former student Clara Britt is excited to sit behind a small, wooden desk again.
“I never thought that this would happen,” says Britt, giggling like a schoolgirl. She’s about to turn 102-years-old.
Sitting beside Britt is former classmate Ordie Brown. He’s 94-years-old and met his wife here.
“She was taking home economics,” says Brown. “They were practicing how to cook. She would give me lunch out the window.”
Brown and Britt are reunited for the reopening of the historic St. George school. After years of fundraising, planning and construction, the restored schoolhouse will now serve as a community center and museum, sharing the story of African Americans denied an education and the hope they found in schools like St. George Rosenwald.
Built in 1925, the schoolhouse is known as a Rosenwald school because it was funded in part by Julius Rosenwald. He was the son of Jewish immigrants who became the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company.
Rosenwald met educator Booker T. Washington in 1911. The founder of the Tuskegee Institute believed education was the key to African Americans breaking free from generations of oppression.
Together, the wealthy business owner and the educator born into slavery, set out to build schools for Black children.
At the time, 90% of African Americans lived in the South. Yet, schools for Blacks were just shacks with merely a fraction of the funding as White schools, if they existed at all.
Rosenwald offered to match funding in Black communities that raised money for schools and got the support of local white schoolboards. The idea was to get communities to work together.
Black families, already paying taxes for white schools, struggled, but came up with the money. They knew education could be life changing.
“If you’re a parent who can’t read or write, you want your kids to be able to that,” says former state Sen. John Matthews.
Matthews is grateful for the education he received at a Rosenwald school in Bowen, S.C. He helped raise money for the St. George restoration.
Between 1917 and 1932, roughly 5,000 Rosenwald schools were built, educating more than 600,000 Black children. Their graduates include civil right activists like Medgar Evers, John Lewis, and Maya Angelou.
Today, 500 Rosenwald schoolhouses remain but many are in disrepair. Former students like Ralph James want to save them.
“We see the progress, that in spite of these things, we tell the story of how persons made it,” says James. “How they were successful in life.”
A retired municipal judge, James attended the St. George school until it closed in 1954. He’s made it his mission to resurrect the schoolhouse and proudly gave a tour during its reopening earlier this month.
James says the six-teacher schoolhouse is one of the largest in the state, repurposed with electricity and bathrooms, amenities that did not exist when he was a student. He points to potbelly stoves and brick chimneys that warmed children who often had to walk miles because there were no school buses for Black children. And, like most Rosenwald schools, the building features tall windows with classrooms strategically placed.
“Because they had no light, they had no power and they didn’t want shadows on their desks,” explains Micah Thompson with the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, which helped with the restoration.
Congressman Jim Clyburn joined the tour as a special guest during the reopening. His late wife graduated from a Rosenwald School. He said preserving them pays tribute.
“Making sure that we honor the blood, sweat and tears of those who made this community what it is today.”
The congressman helped celebrate Brown and Britt as members of the school’s first graduating class. Brown spoke about playing basketball for the school with the team making a big tournament. But they’d only played on a dirt court.
“We went to the white high school and asked to practice on a wood floor,” said Brown. “But we were told no.”
Britt, meantime, was smitten with Clyburn.
“I had no idea I would ever meet you,” she said.
But Britt took issue with a banner that read she and Brown graduated in 1950.
“Our class is the class of 49. So, I would like them to change that sign,” said Britt as a roomful of guests erupted in laughter.
And, who’s going to argue? Britt is known as the student who once rode an ox to school to maintain her perfect attendance.
DORCHESTER COUNTY, S.C. (WCIV) — Not one, but three pine trees fell on a house in St. George when severe thunderstorms rolled through Monday night."So, it’s a lot to take in, and then thinking about the process that we have to go through to get the work done is something else too," said Shawn Calvin.St. George family recounts moments trees fell on their house during Monday night's storms (WCIV)Calvin and her husband, Frederick, have owned their home on Davis Terrace for about 15 years. They are deva...
DORCHESTER COUNTY, S.C. (WCIV) — Not one, but three pine trees fell on a house in St. George when severe thunderstorms rolled through Monday night.
"So, it’s a lot to take in, and then thinking about the process that we have to go through to get the work done is something else too," said Shawn Calvin.
St. George family recounts moments trees fell on their house during Monday night's storms (WCIV)
Calvin and her husband, Frederick, have owned their home on Davis Terrace for about 15 years. They are devastated and overwhelmed by the mess.
"About 9 o'clock is when the weather started to shift," she said. "It started raining really heavily, and the wind started blowing, and then by 10 o'clock is actually when it got really bad. So at that point, I was in the den talking to my sister and my husband was in bed."
She told her sister she was going to put the dog up in the other room and get ready for bed. That's when the ceiling came crashing down.
"I noticed that the middle part of the ceiling in the den fell in, and rainwater was coming in at that point," she said. "When I went down the hall to grab my purse, I noticed some of the insulation was coming down in the hallway."
They just finished remodeling the home, so the damage hit hard, but they are still grateful.
"Well I’m full, but blessed because nobody was injured," Calvin said. "The dog and my husband, we all got out safely, but it’s just a lot to take in because we have had the house newly renovated. We haven’t been back here a year."
Now, they will find someplace to stay until they know if it’s safe.
"We’ll stay with relatives until we know the plan for repairs or what our next steps are," Calvin added.
But in the meantime: "So, we’re hoping that they can get it repaired in a few months or less, and we’ll move back in, prayerfully. Until then, we’ll just reside with relatives," Calvin said.
According to the National Weather Service in Charleston, there were 18 reports of wind damage across Colleton and Dorchester counties.
ST. GEORGE — School’s open.This renovated Rosenwald school — one of about 500 in the state, and one of nearly 5,000 in the American South, all constructed between 1913 and 1932 — hosted its first big meeting when members of the board of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina gathered in the auditorium on Aug. 8.It was an occasion to remember the history of the school, to celebrate its rebirth and to consider its future. Plans already have been laid to partner with the ...
ST. GEORGE — School’s open.
This renovated Rosenwald school — one of about 500 in the state, and one of nearly 5,000 in the American South, all constructed between 1913 and 1932 — hosted its first big meeting when members of the board of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina gathered in the auditorium on Aug. 8.
It was an occasion to remember the history of the school, to celebrate its rebirth and to consider its future. Plans already have been laid to partner with the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry on establishing a satellite location here, an idea first proposed by Patsy Knight when she was a state representative, and with the Dorchester County Library to furnish the small library room adjacent to the school’s auditorium.
This historic building in rural South Carolina has been restored thanks to a herculean effort by local advocates and financial support received from lawmakers and private sources. Board members of the nonprofit St. George Rosenwald School now hope to build on their success, adding amenities and historical features to the property, securing 3.5 acres of adjacent land to create public green space and more parking, organizing special events and arranging activities for children.
In short, they want this venue to become a community center and, thus, the epicenter of town.
They have supporters:
The project got underway more than a decade ago, led by Ralph James, a former educator and municipal judge who attended the St. George Rosenwald School as a child. Matthews found $65,000 in rural development funding to help the community purchase the property. Charleston-based architect Glenn Keyes was engaged to salvage the water-damaged and badly deteriorated structure.
Money trickled in over the next several years, about $4 million, and little by little the restoration work was accomplished, documented in a series of pictures by Alan Nussbaum, a rheumatologist and amateur photographer. Reeves joined the effort, becoming James’ close collaborator and engaging the interest of other electric cooperative leaders.
An employee of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, Micah Thompson, managed to find dozens of old iron-and-wood desks, the kind once used in the school. One or two of them were part of the St. George Rosenwald School’s original furnishings.
Last year, Stephens sponsored an earmark worth $500,000 to help cover costs. This year, he sponsored another for $400,000.
“I’m not stopping, trust me,” he said, referring to his staunch support of the efforts in St. George. “They won’t let me stop.”
James said the main building is ready for public use, but there are still a few pieces of the puzzle to put in place. A train carriage eventually could sit on a short stretch of rail by the school and become a café, as well as a memorial to the late schoolteacher Ezekiel L. Gadson — a poet, singer and disciplinarian who worked as a railway porter before becoming an educator. A current version of the old sweet shop that once was located nearby could entice youths.
An outhouse and shop building behind the school, once was used for vocational training, could soon be renovated and transformed into an exhibit space featuring information about domestic life in the Black community during Jim Crow.
The wooded area just east of the school perhaps could be purchased for the purpose of creating public greenspace, with trails, historical interpretation, an amphitheater and extra parking.
Clara Dixon Britt, 101, remembered attending the school for third grade and, later, for eighth grade. She’d walk five miles to get there, except on days she could ride an ox.
Ordie Columbus Brown, 94, had to travel farther — 6 miles or so — but often found a ride. His father eventually purchased a small school bus, and a teenage Brown would drive it, full of students from his community, south to the school.
He played on the basketball team, which used a rough-cut court located between the two wings of the building. The team was good, and one year made it to the tournament level. Brown visited the nearby White high school to ask permission for the players to prepare for the tournament by practicing on the high school’s hardwood court. School officials said no.
Julius Rosenwald was a Chicago-based businessman and the son of immigrant German Jews who became president of Sears Roebuck and Co., the biggest retail store of the early 20th century. Sears sold pretty much everything, and it distributed a thick catalogue through the mail, enabling many Black people forbidden by legalized segregation from shopping in regular White-owned retail stores to purchase all kinds of items, from seeds to lumber to kitchen supplies.
After Rosenwald made his fortune, he became an avid philanthropist. He met Booker T. Washington in 1911, and the two men worked out a plan to build a network of schools for African American children. At the time, the separate-but-equal legal doctrine codified by the Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case resulted in unequal public education. White schools generally were much better funded than Black schools, and the entrenched poverty among African Americans that was a consequence of nearly three centuries of slavery and Jim Crow meant that education was a privilege that not all families could afford.
Rosenwald and Washington changed that. Eventually, the 5,000 Rosenwald schools ensured that about a third of all African American children could receive a quality education. The schools produced a new generation of achievers, setting the stage for the freedom struggle of the 1940s and ’50s, followed by the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Growing up, Edith Williams-Oldham never realized the historical impact of her small school that sat just a “stone’s throw away” from her home.She knew that she learned to play basketball on the St. George Rosenwald School’s dirt court and that the school was where her favorite literature teacher inspired her to be a writer and poet herself.But it wasn’t until she started researching for her book, “...
Growing up, Edith Williams-Oldham never realized the historical impact of her small school that sat just a “stone’s throw away” from her home.
She knew that she learned to play basketball on the St. George Rosenwald School’s dirt court and that the school was where her favorite literature teacher inspired her to be a writer and poet herself.
But it wasn’t until she started researching for her book, “What Grandma Forgot to Tell You,” that she realized that her years at St. George Rosenwald School in the late 1940s and early ‘50s were an important part of history in St. George, S.C., and across the country.
By 2014, when the school property was given to the town of St. George, the walls were decaying and the basketball court was full of shrubs. But now, after an extensive restoration effort lead by alumni and community members, the school is on track to reopen to the public this fall.
From a place that afforded precious opportunity to generations of Black children to a place that fostered community and progress in the Civil Rights era, the newly restored St. George Rosenwald School is a place community members now hope will inform and inspire the next generation.
The St. George Rosenwald School is one of many schools built throughout the South by Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist and president of Sears and Roebuck, and with the help of educator Booker T. Washington.
The historic South Carolina property was built in 1925 during a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws made it harder for Black students to receive a quality education. The building served as a school and gathering place for Black students until 1954 and after was a meeting space and community center for the surrounding area.
“If you saw the pictures before they cleaned it off, we even wondered if it could be salvaged,” Oldham said.
The school was one of only two Rosenwald Schools in Dorchester County and is the only one still standing, according to the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
Ralph James, the chairman of the St. George School Board and one of the last students to attend the school before it closed, said the school was partially preserved by the neglect.
“It really was neglected to allow these trees to grow up around it, and then there were a lot of cement blocks and cement pieces stored around 6, 7, 8 feet high all around it,” James said. “So when the storm wind blew, that buffered the school from a lot.”
Since 2014, the board, made up of alumni and local legislators, has worked on restoring the building. They have added a kitchen, bathrooms and a board room. They also plan to recreate the old principal’s office and fill the small library with a mix of modern books and ones that James and his classmates would have read.
The school’s updated auditorium will include updated stage lighting, a projector and multicolor walls, which James said tell a story.
When the school hosted an early childhood education program, different walls were painted different colors for different age groups, James said. When the wooden boards from those walls were cleaned and reinstalled, all the colors were mixed up.
“So this was the pattern that was placed up there with intent to paint, and a few persons came in said not to paint,” James said. “It’s original, and it tells a story.”
However, one part of the south wing of the St. George Rosenwald School will feature two rooms most similar to what the building would have looked like while it was open. The board plans to host classes for visiting children in two classrooms fitted with original floors, a blackboard and a stove that would have been used to heat the classroom in the winter.
With the help of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, old desks were located from across the county and restored so that visiting students can sit it them while learning about the history of the school.
Doug Reeves, the vice president of the St. George Rosenwald School board, said the desks were just part of the board’s effort to preserve the memory of the school.
“We’ve got some alum that’s graduated from that school, and they keep coming back saying, ‘OK, well, this is where it was, you know, when I was here. …Yeah, you ought to do this, or do that.’ And that’s what we kind of kept in mind the whole time,” Reeves said. “We wanted to save as much of that as we possibly could.”
The project has become a community effort, according to Oldham, who said the alumni group even sponsored the restoration of a nearby restaurant themselves.
In the 1920s, the Black community held fish fries and fundraisers to be able to build the Rosenwald school, and Oldham said for the restoration project, the alumni did the same.
“Well, what we did was we just emulated what our parents, foreparents had done,” Oldham said. “We raised money.”
Oldham said she hopes the continued effort to rebuild the school and surrounding buildings will help to uplift the community that the school sits in the center of.
For Oldham and James, the Rosenwald school represents a time of unity and support throughout the Black community in St. George.
James described the school as “the jewel, the pride of the community.” The Black community flourished around it, with restaurants, shops and movie theaters creating a vibrant uptown St. George that was nicknamed “Little Harlem.”
“As I walked the streets as a child, everyone knew of me, and you could just, from house to house, you can depend on a little helping hand along the way,” James said. “You were never a stranger. So that feeling is something that can’t be duplicated in a way, but it does tremendous to build citizenship and to strengthen humankind.”
Oldham said that the St. George Rosenwald School itself was so popular that it was overfilled and had to hold classes in the nearby church or in auxiliary buildings.
For many students, Oldham said the school was a life-changing opportunity that many Black children didn’t have. One of the school’s oldest alumni even begged her mother to ride their family’s bull to school during a particularly bad storm so she could maintain her perfect attendance.
“This school was a prayer, an answered prayer,” Oldham said. “To be in a room where there was no leaking room, there were heaters with wood, coal burning to keep them warm, there was toilet paper, even though it was an outdoor toilet, it was flushable.”
Even after the school closed, it acted as an organizing place in the Civil Rights movement, according to the National Park Service, which recognized the school as a part of the African American Civil Rights Network in 2021. The building was used to prepare community members to vote and hosted “Project Deep” which helped prepare Black students to enter integrated schools in Dorchester County.
“That school has been a venue for progress since the day it was built,” Oldham said. “We want to make it even more so now.”
James said the additions to the St. George Rosenwald School were made to help make the building a community space again. He hopes to see the school host everything from history lessons to Rotary Club meetings to birthday parties.
“Hopefully, we will be able to demonstrate not only here what can happen, but to other communities just what would happen if you would, again, begin to find something that would bring you together, bring the area together and give you a common cause,” James said. “Give us hope, again, create love for one another and more than that ... an education and to stimulate our minds and to do good things.”
In addition to classrooms and meeting spaces, the updated St. George Rosenwald School will partner with the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry to include informational exhibits for younger visitors on the south side of the building, James said.
“I think one of the slogans, ‘a mind is a terrible thing to waste,’” James said. “So here we are not wasting minds, but we are rejuvenating them, we are strengthening them.”
To Oldham, involving and engaging the youth, which she considers anyone from children to 40-year-olds, will lead to the success of the project.
“This is the greatest gift that your foreparents could have given you. The opportunity to learn about where you came from, who they were, why you’re here and how you got here and what this school has contributed to the community in St. George and surrounding areas,” Oldham said. “We would hope that you would take interest and learn and keep supporting it to build a better community.”
According to James, the St. George Rosenwald School is on track to host a grand opening in September.
This story was originally published August 4, 2023, 5:30 AM.
ST. GEORGE, S.C. (WCIV) — During the 1920s in the heart of the Jim Crow era, Black and white students were not allowed to go to school together. Unfortunately, white students had better quality schools and Black students would have to learn in schools that were almost falling apart.In 1915, Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, the owner of Sears, set out on a mission to fund and create better-quality schools for Black students. These schools became known as Rosenwald Schools.READ MORE:...
ST. GEORGE, S.C. (WCIV) — During the 1920s in the heart of the Jim Crow era, Black and white students were not allowed to go to school together. Unfortunately, white students had better quality schools and Black students would have to learn in schools that were almost falling apart.
In 1915, Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, the owner of Sears, set out on a mission to fund and create better-quality schools for Black students. These schools became known as Rosenwald Schools.
Nearly 5,000 schools were created and became that paradise for young Black students who wanted to learn.
One of those schools currently sits in the heart of St. George: St. George Rosenwald School.
Unfortunately, over time, these schools began to disappear and became neglected. But recently, community members have been working to revitalize what they call the "jewel of the community."
St. George Rosenwald School is one of the few Rosenwald Schools remaining in the state. The plan is now to turn it into a museum where children from across the country can visit and sit in a classroom that takes them back in time. People hope children can learn about the changemakers who paved the way.
"We have two classrooms that go back to the original classrooms from the 1920s, and they'll get to sit in the chairs that their grandfather or whomever came to school here," said Douglas Reeves, the chairman of Edisto Electric Cooperative. "They're going to have some diplomas and report cards, it's going to be on display and they're going to look and think, 'oh hey, wow, I never thought my grandaddy did this! I never thought my grandparents had to do this to get an education.'"
The school closed in 1954.
Ralph James was only in second grade when the doors closed, and he says he remembers it like it was yesterday. James credits the school with granting him the gift of learning, and now years later, he is a co-chair on the board tasked with revitalizing the classroom he once called home.
He hopes every child who visits this landmark learns the value of education and that they chase any dream they want, despite the obstacles.
"I hope they see the importance of preparation for a good education, be serious about it and hopefully the experiences that we experienced then will be shared with them and it will instill hope," said James, the co-chair of the Board of Directors for St. George Rosenwald School. "It will let you know that you are capable of being somebody, that it will encourage you to reach beyond what you can visibly see and really look to the future and prepare yourself."
Tuesday morning, the hallways of St. George Rosenwald School will be packed as it will host the first gathering held in the school since the 1950s. The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina will host its state board meeting on the historic landmark, and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster and Congressman James Clyburn (D- South Carolina) will be in attendance.
The opening of the school is planned for September, but no official date has been set.