Rosenwald school now thrives as a senior center
By Eric Wills | From Preservation | July/August 2011
At first glance, the Rosenwald school in Walnut Cove could be mistaken for a large, one-story white house, with no evidence of the structure's historical importance to this rural community in North Carolina. But when the building was threatened by demolition more than a decade ago, a group of African American residents responded with a passionate appeal to save it.
The school building was one of more than 5,000 constructed in the early to mid-1900s in the rural South as part of an ambitious initiative started by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., and Booker T. Washington, the prominent educator. The schools they founded gave African American children a chance to learn to read and write in the days before integration, when such opportunities—especially in the Deep South—were practically nonexistent.
"I ended up feeling in many ways that these two men were very similar," says Stephanie Deutsch, author of You Need a Schoolhouse, a book about the historic partnership between Rosenwald and Washington that will be published this fall. "They were not dreamer-philosopher types. They were can-do practical types. They liked that about each other, I think."
In Walnut Cove, many residents fondly remember how values instilled and lessons learned at the school served as the foundation for careers in business and politics. Gregory Hairston's parents and many of his relatives attended the school, which he recalls as the "focal point of the black citizens of the local community."
Hairston and other activists began holding bake sales and various fundraisers to purchase the building. They eventually secured a loan—later forgiven—from Preservation North Carolina, and acquired the historic schoolhouse.
Then the restoration work began, spearheaded by Angelo Franceschina of the Rural Initiative Project, Inc., based in Bethania, N.C. Franceschina helped raise $600,000 in grants and other donations and secured another $400,000 of pro bono assistance. Area lumberyards donated materials and the local electrical union contributed free labor. Inmates from the nearby Dan River prison helped stabilize the structure and install a new metal roof as part of a work program. Workers also restored the wood windows, installed wood siding, and added a new commercial kitchen. The school was reborn as a senior and community center; rental income from the town and Stokes County, which host programs there, supports ongoing maintenance.
In 2002, the same year the National Trust listed Rosenwald schools on the list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, the Walnut Cove restoration project earned a National Preservation Honor Award. The project has emerged as a model that illustrates how Rosenwald schools can be revitalized as thriving community centers.
In 2005, the National Trust partnered with Lowe's Charitable and Education Foundation; together they have provided yearly grants for the restoration of Rosenwald schools. The Walnut Cove project "was really catalytic for us," says John Hildreth, director of the National Trust's Southern office. "I realized early on how dedicated people were to the history of these schools—and to their future as well."
The project also proved inspirational for Angelo Franceschina, who has since helped restore many other Rosenwald schools and has fielded countless calls from fellow preservationists seeking advice as they embark on similar projects. He tells them to develop partnerships with the local government, businesses, and people. "I don't think the Walnut Cove project would have worked if the community wasn't tied together."
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