Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Finding lost black schools


Groups document old Rosenwald buildings

The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE - Sharon Cantrell sees the abandoned one-room schoolhouse in Hardin County as an important part of history for her and many other blacks across the South.

So Cantrell recently bought the old West Point Colored School that she attended in the 1950s. She paid $1,000 and hopes to restore the building where knotty vines twist up the walls, curling around windows and poking through the roof.

"It makes me smile, just the fact that it's still here," she said. "This is my history."

The school was one of almost 5,000 that Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., built in the early 1900s to educate black children in 15 states in the South and Southwest. The Julius Rosenwald Fund disbursed $4.3 million to help build 4,977 schools, 217 teacher homes and 163 vocational shop buildings between 1917 and 1936.

Kentucky once had 155 Rosenwald schools, but after integration, the structures were abandoned - left to decay or be demolished. It's not known how many are left in the state.

Two state agencies - the Kentucky Heritage Council and the Kentucky African-American Heritage Commission - are attempting to locate the remaining school buildings and document their condition. The hope is that local communities will preserve them.

"I think a lot of communities don't realize what they have," the heritage council's spokeswoman, Diane Comer, said.

David Morgan, the heritage council's executive director, said Rosenwald schools should be preserved because they tell an important story.

"Schools are always the heart and soul of the community, whether they are African-American or white," he said.

Brent Leggs, a graduate student at the University of Kentucky's College of Design, is leading the research effort to find the schools, building upon work done in the late 1990s by Georgetown College professor Alicestyne Turley-Adams, who published a book on the subject.

"When people leave and communities die out, what remains? The buildings," Leggs said.

Cantrell is forming a nonprofit corporation to collect money to save the West Point school. She hopes it will one day become a history center focusing on the education of rural blacks.

"It's an awesome task," she said of the restoration, which an architect estimates could cost up to $300,000. "But I'm expecting a miracle. The Lord will provide."



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