In the early part of the last century, when institutional racism was rampant, education was a rare commodity for the Black Community in the United States. Slavery was over, but another form of brutal economic enslavement was still hanging on. Sharecropping became the new way to keep Blacks and poor Whites “in their place.” The White community had good public schools, but Black students were not allowed to attend classes in those grand Victorian palaces of education.
In the Black Community there were private venues for education, many were Church supported. Educating Black Americans was no longer illegal, as it was in the days of slavery, but it was rare to see a school for Black students in rural Virginia. There was a school in Brunswick County that educated black students in the late 19th century, but it was funded, mainly, by subscriptions from Northern Backers.
One man became the driving force for education in the Black Community, after seeing the major disparities in the segregated system of the South. Julius Rosenwald, a Jew and President of the Sears Roebuck Company spent a substantial part of his fortune to build schools specifically for the Black Community. Rosenwald was a second generation American whose parents fled Germany in 1854 because of the anti-Jewish sentiment; Rosenwald understood the effects of discrimination.
Rosenwald was convinced of the need of quality education for Blacks in the South by a Virginian: Booker T. Washington. Washington was born a Slave, but at the age of 25 became the first principal of the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers in Alabama. He built his school into the Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, by far the best known, largest and most successful Black College in the country.
Both Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington understood the value of education and the importance of community.
Rosenwald Schools depended on funding from the local government and donations from the local Black Communities where they were built, in addition to the funds from Rosenwald. Many of these schools became centers of the communities that they served.
In Greensville County alone, there were 13 Rosenwald Schools. The Orion, Claresville and Barley Schools were One-teacher Types; Independence, Diamond Grove, Mars Hill, Antioch, Powell, Rylands, Radium and Dahlia Schools were Two-teacher Types; Jarratts School was a Three-teacher type. Of the 13 schools in the county only the South Emporia Training School – later known as the Greensville County Training School – was a Six-teacher type, and the only one constructed of brick. Only 16 of the Six-teacher Schools were built in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Schools built with Rosenwald Fund monies were designated by the number of teachers or classrooms, and the plans were developed over several years. Rosenwald Schools have several defining characteristics: high windows for ventilation and light, quality blackboards, coat-rooms, patent desks for the students. The plans were published in books titled Community School Plans, which specified every detail, including color schemes. This uniformity is what makes Rosenwald Schools so recognizable today.
Many communities have preserved their Rosenwald Schools and made them, once again, centers of the community. Just south of us, in Halifax, NC, there is a preserved Rosenwald School, the last remaining Rosenwald School in Brunswick County, the Saint Paul’s School has been preserved and just recently received a roadside historic marker. In Farmville, Virginia, the R. R. Moton High School, also a Six-teacher Type has been preserved and is now a museum.
Here, in Emporia, though, we apparently have no need for historic preservation. Just last month Citizens voiced their opinions to save the Auditorium on Main Street after City Council decided to demolish the building. Now that the voice of the people has saved that structure, City Council has the Greensville County Training School in the crosshairs.
When the School Board consolidated schools, the old Training School was surplus and became a dumping ground for old furniture and equipment. The new addition became the School Board office and was maintained while the historic building next door was allowed to deteriorate and crumble.
Alumni of the school stepped in and started a grass-roots effort to save the building that was, at one time, the center of a thriving African-American Community. While some still see the building as a symbol of the dark days of segregation, many of the alumni have fond memories of the school. The Auditorium was the site of school and community events.
The School Board deeded the building to the group in the early part of the 21st Century, and Citizens United to Preserve the Greensville County Training School has been working hard to save the building since then. Citizens United to Preserve the Greensville County Training School is a 501(c)3 Not For Profit organization. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a member of the Citizens United Board of Directors.
Saving this building has not been easy. The building had been neglected for so long that it was collapsing from the inside, prompting the City to require that the preservation group “selectively demolish” huge sections of the structure and fence it off in the name of safety and the group complied, leaving the structure in the state it is in today. Even with the “selective demolition,” though, the group has not been deterred.
Through donations and with limited funding from the City, plans were developed for the restoration of the building to its original state. The plans included a museum and space for an education center long before the building of the Southside Virginia Education Center in the County. In addition the building has been placed on the Virginia Landmarks Registry and the National Register of Historic Places because of its historic importance to our community. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has declared Rosenwald Schools “National Treasures.”
An Architectural Rendering of the Restored Greensville County Training School.
The City of Emporia seemed supportive of the project, just as they did with the Civic Center project. Things have apparently changed now. After a closed door meeting of City Council on August 18, Council voted to force the group to tear what remains of the building down, and has earmarked $80,000 to pay for it themselves if the group does not comply.
Unlike the Civic Center Foundation, Citizens United has not been given an opportunity to share their concerns with the City. The decision to demolish was made in private, with notice provided to Citizens United afterwards. The closed session notice on the agenda was the only notice given that there were any discussions about the fate of the Training School building. Said closed session was entered under the vague guise of “legal advice.”
The vote to demolish was unanimous, with Council Member Dale Temple absent, on a motion made by F. Woodrow Harris and seconded by Jay Ewing. It would seem that Council Member Harris (who also made the motion to demolish the Auditorium) does not see the need for historic preservation. One may also assume that the three African-American members of City Council no longer remember the importance of Community. One should also wonder why is it that Frances Woodrow “Woody” Harris, Council Member for District Four, seems so hell-bent on destroying every historic building in town?
Our Community is dying. Children are no longer born here, unless the delivery occurs in the Emergency Room. There is no major prospect for sustaining Economic Development. There is no desire to preserve the history of our Community.
In order to help economic development we need to invest in our Community. Saving structures like the Auditorium and the Training School is an investment that will help draw business and industry to Emporia. Too little importance is placed on enhancing our Quality of Life. Too little importance is placed on Quality Education for the students in our public school system, as evidenced by the budget impasse we nearly faced in June. For businesses to relocate here we need a strong Public School System and choices for arts and culture.
Saving the Auditorium was the first step; we need to keep fighting to save our history and our community. We cannot allow City Council to demolish one of the few remaining historic structures. If We the People allow this building to be torn down, which one will be next? Will Council set its sights on Village View and tear it down because it is in need of a coat of paint?
Of the five sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the City, only one, the Greensville County Training School, is a site related to African-American History. In light of the recent tax increases does the City really need to spend $80,000 to force this issue now? What would be the harm in giving Citizens United the same opportunity that was afforded the Civic Center Foundation?