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Historic black elementary school envisions second life
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Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow
Rebecca Kinney (center) revisits a St. John Elementary classroom with Bernice Mitchell (left) and Jean Payne (right).
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Josh Mandell | Saturday, December 03, 2016 at 6:24 p.m.

Children used to walk for miles through fields and forests to attend St. John Elementary in Cobham. Once they arrived, they had to scrub the floors, polish the large windows and build fires in the heating stove.

Built in 1922 to serve African-American children exclusively, today the three-room schoolhouse is a stark reminder of racial segregation in Albemarle County’s history. But for its former students, it’s also a symbol of their community’s resilience, and home to many treasured memories of childhood.

“We’re proud of the school and want to keep its legacy alive,” said Rebecca Kinney, who attended St. John Elementary just before it closed in 1955.

Kinney is leading an effort to turn the old school building into a community center for residents of rural eastern Albemarle. The center would include a fitness room, an auditorium and an exhibit commemorating the school’s history.

While the schoolhouse is structurally sound, its interior requires extensive repairs. The total cost of the project is estimated at $250,000. The nonprofit St. John Family Life and Fitness Center Inc. hopes to raise $20,000 to install a new well and septic system within the next six months.

St. John Elementary was one of thousands of schools for black children in the rural South built with donations from Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., in the early 20th century. After the U.S. Supreme Court deemed school segregation to be unconstitutional in the 1950s, many Rosenwald Schools were abandoned, demolished or altered beyond recognition.

The St. John Elementary schoolhouse, now owned by the neighboring St. John Baptist Church, is one of six surviving Rosenwald Schools in Albemarle. The other five are in use as private homes.

The Rosenwald Fund contributed $700 to build St. John Elementary. Government funding and contributions from Albemarle residents — mostly from the black community it served — covered the remaining $1,800. The school’s original foundation, floorboards and plaster walls are still sturdy after nearly a century.

St. John Elementary improved upon a one-room schoolhouse originally built on the site. But the school still lacked indoor plumbing and other basic amenities.

Kinney said she and her classmates were not always conscious of the disparate conditions of Albemarle’s white and black schools, as they had never seen the schools that their white peers attended. If teachers at St. John were discouraged by this inequality, they didn’t let it show, Kinney said.

“[Our teachers] didn’t harp on what we didn’t have,” she said. “Even though they knew we were using used books and things like that, they gave us the best education they could.”

While teachers at St. John were strict, they still reserved plenty of time for outdoor recess.

“When you live in the country like we did, far apart from each other, we didn’t have playmates,” said Alberta Brassfield, who attended the school in the 1930s. “School was where you saw your friends.”

The St. John Family Life and Fitness Center’s board of directors is living proof that friendships formed at the school remain strong to this day. Herbert and Jean Payne, a married couple on the board, first met as children at St. John Elementary in the 1940s.

Members of the board have attended multiple national conferences on the preservation of Rosenwald Schools. Their plan for the community center draws inspiration from the Scrabble School in Rappahannock County that is now used as a senior center.

“Funding to restore a little school in a rural county is not that common,” said Suzanna Spencer, program director for the Scrabble School. She said proposing a new community use for their Rosenwald School helped the foundation attract grants.

The Scrabble School also has become a valuable resource for local educators. Rappahannock County fourth-graders view the historical exhibit there each year as part of their Virginia Studies unit. “The building is always used,” Spencer said. “It’s really giving the school a second life.”

Lorenzo Dickerson, a documentary filmmaker and social-media specialist for Albemarle County Public Schools, has spearheaded the fundraising campaign for the St. John Family Life and Fitness Center. Dickerson said he is seeking support from the school division, along with the county government and local businesses.

“It is the only school of its time period in Albemarle County that young kids would be able to visit,” Dickerson said. “Right now, their knowledge of black schools probably goes back as far as [the former] Burley High School, but nothing prior to that.”

Burley is now an Albemarle County middle school, located in the city of Charlottesville. The Jefferson School, also in the city, is another historic black public school that has found new life as a community center and today is home to the African American Heritage Center, among other entities.

“It’s very important for younger people to know the difference between our education and their education,” Kinney said. “Hopefully, they will have more appreciation for what they have today.”

On Dec. 10, alumni of St. John Elementary will celebrate the addition of a highway marker from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources designating it as a place of historical significance. The unveiling ceremony will take place at 10 a.m.

 

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