One woman’s quest to rescue a Rosenwald school
By Eric Wills | From Preservation | July/August 2009
Liz Sims remembers the teachers, how they looked after each student, ensuring that any child who came to school without a coat quickly got one. She remembers how desperately she wanted to learn so that she would no longer have to work in the fields picking cotton. And she remembers how her friends accomplished so much with so little—the out-of-print books, the lone swing set, the potbelly stove for heat.
The Rosenwald school that Sims attended in Notasulga, Ala., was part of an ambitious initiative to give African American children a high-quality education in the years before integration. Started by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck & Co., and Booker T. Washington, the civil rights leader, the program helped fund the construction of more than 5,300 schools in the rural South in the early-to-mid-1900s.
"It was not a handout," Sims recalls. "The communities were responsible for raising money. Residents sold pigs and cotton to come up with a portion of the money for the schools."
Today, only a few Rosenwald schools survive, including the one Sims attended in the 1950s and '60s—a three-room structure built in 1921. Sims, a contract administrator at Auburn University, never forgot the schoolhouse where she learned to read and write. And so a few years ago, seeing the building falling apart and fading from memory, she decided to help preserve its legacy.
For Sims, that legacy was complicated by the school's association with the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Starting in 1932, the government deliberately withheld treatment from uneducated African American men to study the effects of the disease, withholding information about their condition and even continuing the trial for decades after a cure was discovered. Many recruits came from Sims' school, and a nearby cemetery holds the greatest concentration of participants, including her grandfather, who was blinded by syphilis.
"People are forgetting about the Rosenwald schools and what they meant. People are forgetting about the syphilis study. These things need to be remembered. The good and the bad, they are a part of our heritage," she says.
Sims brought in professors and architecture students from Auburn and Tuskegee universities to help with the school's restoration. And she won a $50,000 grant from a program administered by Lowe's and the National Trust, which placed the surviving Rosenwald schools on the 2002 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. (See rosenwaldschools.com to learn more.)
"The main feature of the school was its ample windows," says Kwesi Daniels, an architecture professor at Tuskegee University. "They couldn't afford electricity, so they had to make sure they had enough light filtering through the windows."
Workers restored the original wood windows, found in a coatroom and underneath the school, and reinstalled them in place of newer aluminum ones. They are also restoring the pine floors and, to fix parts of the ceiling, had bead board milled to match the original. Now they plan to repaint the exterior and install new insulation and an HVAC system.
Sims hopes volunteers will finish the work by fall and transform the site into a community and student center, and a museum where visitors can listen to oral histories about the school and the syphilis study. "I used to think about my grandfather and cry," Sims says. But "doing this work, it's been healing," she says. "People will remember this building. It will be here for years and years."
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