A Terrible Thing to Waste
For years, the landmark buildings at historic black colleges and universities have been wasting away. But growing recognition of this imperiled heritage is aiding its chances for survival.
By Arnold Berke | From Preservation | March/April 1999
Set into a crumbling sidewalk leading to the St. Agnes Building, an empty structure in the southwest corner of St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C., a series of small stones spells out "Class 67." The worn memento–a commemorative marker? the unauthorized work of eager students?–is one of those intriguing relics, reminders of the passage of time, that now and then catch the eye on college campus strolls. The remnant is also, in this barren setting, a poignant counterpoint to the absence of human activity.
The building rises from a scrubby slope beside a metal shed, a tall brick smokestack, and a parking lot filled with buses, giving it an air more industrial than educational. From a distance, one might mistake the St. Agnes Building for an abandoned mill, an illusion reinforced as much by its coarse stone walls and vertical profile as by ungraceful signs of aging: unpainted wood trim, windows blinded by metal panels, a gaunt and yawning entry porch, and a random spatter of railings, pipes, wires, and lights. It is a scene of isolation heightened by ancient gnarled trees. Not far from where a now-inaccessible entrance drive disappears into the overgrowth, an official sign warns, Do not enter.
From its completion in 1908 to its closing in 1961, when Wake County opened a larger medical center, the St. Agnes Building served as a teaching hospital for nurses–the only such facility open to African-Americans between Richmond and Atlanta. At one time, it is said, more than 75 percent of black nurses in the South had graduated from what was called the St. Agnes Hospital and Training School for Nurses, whose students lived in the attic, above the floors made busy by illness and its amelioration. After the end of that golden age, St. Augustine's used the building fitfully, for offices or storage, and in 1996 closed it completely.
St. Agnes fronts on busy Oakwood Avenue a few miles east of downtown Raleigh. Just south of the city core, on the campus of Shaw University, a three-story brick structure known as the Leonard Building rises above a stone wall and a strip of grass. Twin bows protrude from its front like the Victorian row houses on the streets of Richmond or Washington, D.C. Built in 1881, this structure likewise figured in the medical training of African-Americans, having housed the Leonard Medical School for 33 years. Within its walls were lecture rooms, a laboratory, dissecting rooms, an amphitheater, and–before it moved in 1912 to a new Georgian Revival building next door–a 25-bed hospital. Stating "the need of colored physicians thoroughly trained and qualified," Shaw University founder Henry Martin Tupper announced in 1885 that "it will be the aim of the Faculty and Trustees to graduate none but those showing themselves possessed of such knowledge as will fully equip them for a successful professional life."
Also like St. Agnes, the Leonard Building was battered about by additions and alterations. In 1942, the Baptist State Convention remodeled the building for its headquarters–changes that were later the source of structural problems. The building suffered grievously from fires, the first of which, in 1954, cost it two elegant conical domes and an ornate brickwork cornice. After another blaze, in the early 1980s, Shaw closed Leonard, unable to shoulder the high costs of renovation.
St. Agnes and Leonard are, in a sense, the same place–an aging, culturally significant, architecturally appealing building located at a historically black college. A place that pioneered in the professional education of African-Americans. One that suffered decades of overuse and undermaintenance yet somehow survived. One, finally, that will endure: Shaw University is completing a thorough restoration of Leonard, and St. Augustine's College intends this year to follow suit with St. Agnes. With its roofline reborn and its exterior and much of the interior returned to their original appearance, Leonard will house a divinity school, a library, and classrooms. A teaching-technology training center, the president's and other offices, and a history gallery devoted to the college and hospital will fill the restored St. Agnes. Both projects augur better days on and beyond these campuses, for they are the fruit of a growing national and federal-government campaign to recognize the lasting worth of the scores of black colleges and universities founded mostly since the Civil War. Part of the plans for reinvigoration is to preserve their best-loved buildings.
The preservation mission arose during the 1980s, when a handful of these colleges brought the plight of some of their endangered buildings to the attention of the Interior Department. In 1991, the secretary of the interior targeted 11 structures at 11 colleges and universities–including St. Agnes and Leonard–for restoration, using public funds matched by corporate and foundation donations. In the ensuing years, championed by the schools and local preservationists, restoration projects began to sprout at a few of these and other campuses.
The decay, however, was much more widespread, and ultimately, says Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), "the necessity grew to really deal with this issue in a way that everybody would be on board." He and his colleagues, through the Congressional Black Caucus, commissioned a survey by the General Accounting Office (GAO) of 103 campuses in 22 states and territories that had earlier been defined by the federal government as traditionally African-American. Released in February 1998, the study tallied 712 at-risk buildings with an estimated restoration bill of $755 million.
The magnitude of this backlog was impressed upon the general public last June after the National Trust placed the 103 schools as a group on its 1998 roster of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, and local and national media headlined the news. "That took the discussion to a level that I don't think anything else could have put it on," says Clyburn, since January the chairman of the Black Caucus, who has promoted federal restoration aid for the schools.
On one level, the history of colleges and universities for African-Americans is well-known. Fame and prestige envelop schools like Hampton Institute in Virginia, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Howard University in Washington, D.C., Morehouse College in Atlanta, and Fisk University in Nashville, as well as names like Booker T. Washington–student at the first college and founder of the second–and NAACP cofounder and Fisk alumnus W.E.B. Du Bois. Slightly less familiar are the record of the federal Freedmen's Bureau (created in 1865 as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands), which established many of the earliest institutions, and the role of northern church societies in their founding and nourishment, Shaw and St. Augustine's among the beneficiaries. An indelible image is that of students making the bricks, or quarrying the stone, that went into the first buildings, which they then helped build. Students at St. Augustine's helped construct St. Agnes Hospital and two other campus landmarks of granite they quarried on campus.
The proliferation and endurance of these colleges, however, is a story written as much at lesser-known places and by unsung people as by those more celebrated. Twenty-four private schools had sprung up by 1875, and passage of the second federal Morrill Act, in 1890, led state governments to establish 19 public schools. (The first Morrill Act, in 1862, established the system of land-grant colleges.) By 1927, some 14,000 students were enrolled at 77 of these colleges and universities, in urban as well as rural locations throughout the South and beyond. Their curricula ranged from the vocational and technical–the backbone of the early years–to the scholarly and professional. It was a self-contained universe, remarkably invisible to white America, that for most of its history offered blacks their only route to higher education. Today, nearly 300,000 students attend historically black colleges and universities, from which a third of all black lawyers, half of all black engineers, and nearly two thirds of all black physicians have graduated. And, between 1986 and 1994, enrollment grew some 25 percent.
The influence of this network of schools on black and, by extension, American history has been profound. "The historic colleges were the cultivators and educators and nurturers of economic development for the black communities in which they resided. And they were the mirrors of our social and political climate," says Louretta Wimberly, chairman of the Black Heritage Council of the Alabama Historical Commission. The civil rights movement blossomed early on at black colleges. The progress of African-Americans is reflected in the century-long lives of the Delany sisters in their popular 1993 book, Having Our Say. Bessie and Sadie Delany were born, raised, and educated at St. Augustine's College, where their father was an Episcopal priest and vice principal. "Many fine, young colored people graduated from St. Aug's," wrote the pair, "and went on to share what they had learned with countless others."
"When you look around the country for visual evidence of African-American history and existence, you find very few institutions where this history is preserved," says Henry N. Tisdale, the president of Claflin College in Orangeburg, S.C. "I'm thinking, of course, of the black church as one, but the other is our colleges and universities. Many of our high schools and the like have been bulldozed. The only places where you find archives and great collections of our artifacts and our history are on these campuses of the historically black colleges and universities. We have the buildings, we have the artifacts, we have the books." (See companion article on page 68.)
"I grew up in Selma," Wimberly says, "so I see and understand how our histories intertwine–the contribution of black and white Americans to the total history of this country. … If the history of this great country is going to be preserved at all, it has to be all-inclusive." A graduate of Alabama State and Atlanta universities, she has been active for years in the preservation of black historic sites and, increasingly, college landmarks. "These places preserve history, they say what is history." Wimberly worked with black preservation leaders in southeastern states and the Trust's southern office to nominate the colleges for endangered-sites status, in the hopes that it "would provide a window of opportunity to save as much as we could on these campuses."
The buildings have been neglected, in many if not most cases, because the institutions themselves have been neglected–"underfunded in almost every way," as Tisdale puts it. "We have not had the luxury of maintaining these buildings as historic buildings." Especially at the small private schools, funds from alumni, corporations, and other sources have not kept pace with the demands for academic improvements, let alone the need for new buildings or even landmarks restoration. (The black colleges that have closed in recent years have been private and small.) When faced with deteriorated buildings, some of them their earliest, black colleges and universities have reacted as any number of others have–by slashing maintenance and making do or by closing or, as a last resort, razing buildings. In a 1996 summary of its facilities needs, Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Miss., reported with candor that the "inability to adequately address the maintenance needs of this College over the years has forced it to use a reactive approach … as opposed to one that is … preventive."
A case in point is Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C. Bishop J.W. Hood, a native of Kennett Square, Pa., was the first chairman of the board of the school and an organizer of other black colleges and public schools in the state. In his honor in 1910 the college dedicated its new seminary building, a two-story structure centered on a bell tower. For years, the chimes of the Old Hood Building signaled Salisbury residents for work, lunch, and the end of the workday. The building has been closed since 1978, however, when severe deterioration caused part of one wall to collapse. Funding to help stabilize it has recently been secured from the Salisbury Foundation and other benefactors, but the $2 million needed for full restoration has yet to be raised. Another example is the Old Administration Building at Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Tex., a now dilapidated structure erected in 1913 with cinder blocks made by students in the industrial-arts program. The modified Prairie Style structure, wrote the college's president, Joseph T. McMillan Jr. in 1994, "serves as a stately memorial to an earlier generation's commitment to education, self-help, and empowerment of African-American people." But it has been empty since the early 1970s, in need of approximately $3 million worth of restoration and modernization if it is to be reused as planned for offices and a historical archive.
Some schools restored portions of buildings, then searched, sometimes for years, for funds to finish the job. Shaw University, for example, was forced to close its oldest surviving structure, Estey Hall, in 1970. Built a century earlier as a women's dormitory, the handsome Italianate building was half reopened in 1993 after restoration of the exterior and the first two of its four floors. Until further funds come in as hoped from private sources, half of Estey–including a spacious attic chamber lit through cupola windows–will not be fully accessible. And, pending completion of its $3 million restoration, Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., has been able to reoccupy only part of the deteriorated Biddle Hall (1883), a Romanesque Revival building paid for by tobacco heiress Mary Duke Biddle that was the first on its present campus.
Nonetheless, aid for landmarks at historically black colleges and universities is materializing a bit more quickly these days. Aside from the Leonard Building, restoration has been wrapped up at 2 of the 11 buildings in the secretary of the interior's 1991 initiative–the 1867 Howard Hall at Howard University and the 1869 Gaines Hall at Morris Brown College in Atlanta. Exterior restoration of Hampton University's 1874 Virginia Hall was completed in 1996, and workers will soon move inside. The elaborate structure, a mix of Victorian Gothic and Second Empire elements, was one of three designed for the then Hampton Institute by Richard Morris Hunt–a rare instance of work at a black college by a nationally known white architect. (Those who designed most of the 712 buildings range from anonymous to such top African-American architects as William Cook and the Nashville firm McKissack and McKissack; many of the designers were taught on campus.) Rehabilitation is also under way at White Hall (1916), an administrative building at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla. Educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded the institute that grew into the college, lived there in a house that still stands.
Clyburn and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus were instrumental in including 12 more schools in a 1996 public parks bill that led to the appropriation of $11.2 million in fiscal years 1998 and 1999. The beneficiaries, their restoration now or soon to be begun, include Ministers' Hall at Claflin College, a long-shuttered building erected in 1913 as a dining hall, and Arnett Hall at Allen University in Columbia, S.C. "Arnett was the meeting place in the '40s and '50s for black people in South Carolina," says Clyburn, "the one place that people saw as a safe haven." He aims to fund up to half of the sum identified in the GAO report–$377.5 million, the balance to be matched by private funds–and intends "to test that proposal very early in the current Congress" by seeking to expand the $29 million authorized under the 1996 legislation. Its chances for passage? "It has a shot, but I don't see a dramatic increase in the hundreds of millions of dollars," says Rick Healy, who is on the Democratic staff of the House Resources Committee. Its subcommittee on national parks would air the proposal. The United Negro College Fund has taken up much of the slack for the private sector, helping to match the federal grants for proj-ects like Leonard and St. Agnes halls. Last March, the Lilly Endowment awarded the fund $42 million, some of which will aid school renovations. Meanwhile, alumni donations to black colleges have been rising over the last five years, according to Henry Ponder, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. Funding increases for the landmarks from Congress and the College Fund may help channel some of those donations to restoration work.
As awareness spreads, so does the response. "The national recognition was the first thing," says Louretta Wimberly, "and I think the next step is for the states to lock in on their institutions." She and colleagues elsewhere are encouraging state preservation offices to help schools scope the documentation, certification, and preservation of their landmarks. In Alabama, the state's 14 black colleges and universities would have assistance available to them from the Alabama Historical Commission and its Black Heritage Council. "We could work with [the colleges] to help them come up with plans for raising funds and prioritizing projects," Wimberly says.
Students are chiming in, too. The Alabama council, for instance, has set up an intern program at the state historical commission for students from schools near Montgomery. A group from Alabama State University has sought to bring council members to their campus to speak and to work with the student government and the history department. "At our annual conference," Wimberly says, "one of the sessions will show them the kinds of things they can do–helping their institutions do research, for example." Students at Claflin College, says Henry Tisdale, "have been very supportive of preserving our heritage, even helping us to fundraise." All in all, a fine echo of the labors of much earlier students, whose contribution to history was first measured by the brick.
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