Faculty members at John Tyler Community College have found a project that is engaging students, fellow faculty and the community as well: preserving the history of early 20th century Rosenwald Schools.
A group from John Tyler outlined their initiative to the State Board for Community Colleges last week, and found supporters as well as those with connections to the fading buildings that provided critical educational opportunities to African Americans in the South in the era between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement.
Students at John Tyler are collecting oral histories of folks with memories about the Rosenwald schools, which are some of Virginia’s most endangered historic sites. Students and faculty are collaborating with Preservation Virginia and other historical preservation groups, visiting the remaining schools, promoting their preservation and use as historic sites and museums.
Dr. Alyce Miller, who teaches history at John Tyler, says the initiative got underway in 2013 when a presentation on the Rosenwald schools was scheduled for Black History Month. Interest was so great they applied for — and received – grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to record oral histories. From there, the college History Club has gotten involved and other clubs at the school also have requested to participate or hear about the project. Forums held in 2014 and 2015 have drawn increasing numbers of community members.
Through a Blackboard site, the information is shared with other faculty throughout the system, who can incorporate portions of the oral history project into their own English and History courses.
More than 365 schools and other buildings were constructed as part of the educational effort funded in part by Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears from 1908-1922. The fund matched money raised by the African American communities and supplemented money provided by the state and local governments to provide places for African American children to learn. The project to build the schools ended by the early 1930s.
The project provides students a way to connect to their institution and the community, noted JTCC President Edward “Ted” Raspiller, and “students are more apt to persist if they are connected.”
Nicole Woodson, a student who was encouraged to attend the event for some extra credit in history, found a network of mentors who have supported her in her educational goals. “It’s been a wonderful networking tool.”
Other student find as they talk to their friends and relatives that parents or grandparents knew of, taught at or attended a Rosenwald School. Suddenly the early 20th century era of segregation is “much more real to them.”
John Tyler students and faculty have visited three of the area Rosenwald schools, and have interviewed owners and discussed preservation efforts for the sites.
One student brought his family to the Second Union School in Goochland County to make sure they understood the history associated with the school, she says.
Ultimately, Dr. Miller says, they hope to build a database to hold both the oral histories and maps and photographs of this piece of Americana.
Photo above: Parrish Hill School in Charles City County, photo by Chris Silvent.
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