27 February 2013
A century and a half ago Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation which is seen throughout history as the beginning of the end of slavery. During slavery, it was illegal for enslaved blacks to learn to read and write. When the Civil War ended, states didn’t jump at the opportunity to educate newly freed slaves.
In Fluvanna, as in much of the South, the first schools for blacks were built and maintained by blacks.
As 98-year-old Audrey Smith remembered, those schools consisted of a single room crowded with children of all grade levels from first to sixth.
“I couldn’t pay attention,” she said. “I knew my brothers’ lessons better than mine.”
Many of those schools were cold and dark. Often roofs leaked and floor boards gapped, letting in the elements. Not only were the conditions subpar, but so were the books and materials. Many of the schools only operated four months out of the year.
Jim Crow laws which restricted the rights and opportunities of blacks, had an impact on education, said Brian Daugherity, history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“During Jim Crow, black schools were underfunded, which affected teachers’ salaries, books and transportation,” Daugherity said.
That began to change when Julius Rosenwald, retired CEO of the giant Sears Roebuck Co., became inspired by Virginia-born educator Booker T. Washington and together they envisioned something better. In 1912, Rosenwald gave Washington permission to use some of the money he had donated to Tuskegee Institute for the construction of six small schools in rural Alabama, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation website. Pleased with the results, Rosenwald agreed to fund a larger program for schoolhouse construction based at Tuskegee, the university founded by Washington. Later, Rosenwald Fund offices were set up in Chicago and Nashville. By 1928, one in every five rural schools for black students in the South was a Rosenwald school. At the building program’s end in 1932, there were 4,977 new schools that served 663,615 students in 15 states, the website states.
There were strict guidelines as to how to fund, build and operate the schools. Besides requiring both whites and blacks to contribute money, states had to agree to maintain the building as a part of the public-school system. The Rosenwald Fund insisted the school year expand from four months to nine months.
Between 1923 and 1931, Fluvanna built five Rosenwald Schools: Hollywood, Dunbar, West Bottom, Douglas and Shiloh. In total, they cost about $14,300 with the black community contributing $2,235, the Rosenwald Fund, $2,800 and Fluvanna County $9,100.
Fluvanna County Supervisor Mozell Booker (Fork Union) attended and is one of the owners of the Douglas school. With the help of the Fluvanna County Historical Society, Booker is finding funding to turn the building into an African American Museum. Two other schools, Douglas on Route 15 and Shiloh, on Shiloh Church Road, are private homes.
Helen Morris attended, owns and lives in the Dunbar School. In 2003, the Fluvanna Historical Society and Highway Marker Committee recognized all five of Fluvanna’s Rosenwald schools by placing a marker in front of her home.
Louis and Barbara Persinger live in the Shiloh School. When they bought the house in 1991, it had already been turned into a private home and lived in by at least two different families.
“We didn’t know it had been a school until our neighbor, Les Perry, who lived in an old log cabin, told us,” Louis Persinger said. “He told us he went to school here.”
Barbara had three sons from her first marriage when they moved in. Together, the couple had Jordan, who is now 15.
Barbara said it has been a great house in which to raise a family.
“It was the first house in which each of the boys had their own room,” she said. “They used to go exploring all over the property.”
From the outside the house looks much the same as it did when it was first built. All the Rosenwald schools were built with specific architectural plans and guidelines. They had to be on at least two acres, be situated either East/West or North/South for maximum exposure to light, have big windows, indoor wood stoves for heat and a well with a pump outdoors for fresh water. There were even architectural plans and directions for building outdoor privies. There had to be a minimum of two – one for boys and one for girls.
The Persinger’s home was an East/West oriented, two-teacher school house.
Louis said one of the things he likes about living in the school is that people who attended often stop by and tell him about their days as students.
“They almost always talk about how they played marbles under the big oak tree,” Louis said.
When a tornado in 2002 uprooted the tree, Louis said the root ball spanned at least 10 feet. He and his children looked for marbles but found none.
George Vest remembered going to Shiloh School for one year while he lived with his foster mom, Sarah Gray. After living with her, Vest moved in with Emma Bradley. He spent the rest of his childhood with Bradley and attended Evergreen School which was not a Rosenwald School.
Gracie White went to Shiloh School from first to seventh grade. She vividly remembers the old water pump outside. She said the school had three rooms with a cloakroom. There was a partition that folded back to open up all rooms into one big space. Each morning, students assembled to learn a Bible verse before beginning the day’s lessons.
White lived in Palmyra and walked close to three miles to get to school.
“I walked rain or shine,” she said. “One of the teachers would give us a ride in her Studebaker if the weather was real bad.”
All of them remember bringing their own sack lunch, but White said sometimes they would make soup at the school.
“Everyone would bring an ingredient and put it all in a lard tin and cook soup on the stove,” she said. “It was really good.”
William White also attended school in the building the Persingers now live. He lived on Rt. 640 and walked through the woods to school. White went to Shiloh School for all seven years. While he said he loved to learn, he also remembers recess.
“We used to run play dodge ball, baseball, a little touch football, wrestle and fight,” White said.
Gail Bruce, like Vest, went to Shiloh for one year – first grade.
“Gladys Phanelson was my first grade teacher,” Bruce said. “We had a wood stove but no indoor bathrooms. I remember for Easter, each child would bring two eggs to school. The teachers would boil them and we’d color them and have an Easter egg hunt.”
The next year – 1958 - Central Elementary was built. All smaller county schools serving blacks were closed and those students went to the new school. That’s where Bruce attended second grade through seventh.
“We had this wonderful school and it was wonderful for us,” she said. “(It had) indoor plumbing, central heating and a cafeteria. We kept it up very well. Back then you appreciated what you had and didn’t abuse it.”
When Jordan Persinger was little, Gertrude Brown was her babysitter. “Mama Gert” as the Persingers called her, had been a student at Shiloh and talked about her days at the Rosenwald School.
“I think it’s so cool this place was so important to so many people and now it’s the center of our lives,” Jordan said.
To learn more about the Rosenwald Initiative to preserve schools as national treasures, visit www.preservationnation.org/travel-and-sites/sites/southern-region/rosenwald-schools