- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2017

ELKTON, Va. (AP) - At the end of a gravel lane just outside the town of Elkton, sits a shabby, unassuming building. With broken windows, rusted metal roof and a peeling red front door, 1205 Diamond Lane seems to be a community center long forgotten.

But Rosemarie Palmer - along with the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project - is working to remind the community of the building’s historical past as the last standing Rosenwald School in Rockingham County.

“We want everyone to be informed about its historical value and uniqueness,” the Bridgewater resident said.

Schoolhouse History

In one of the most important advancements in black education in the early 20th century, Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, philanthropist and president of Sears Roebuck, built Rosenwald schools for black children across the South.

It was an attempt to equalize the segregated school systems at a time when black schools in the South tended to be underfunded, according to Palmer.

“It was separate, but usually not equal,” she said. “The black students would get leftovers from white students like leftover books, and the people who graduated from (the Lucy F. Simms School) would tell you their athletic uniforms were leftover. So that situation was probably much worse in the deep South.”

By 1928, one-third of the South’s rural black school children and teachers were served by these schools, and two were built in Rockingham County.

One sat on what is now New Hope Road across from Hank’s Grille and Bar in McGaheysville and was demolished when U.S. Route 33 was widened.

The other was built in 1921 and is still standing in Newtown, just outside Elkton.

Avestar Ross remembers it as the school that she attended more than 70 years ago.

The 86-year-old Newtown resident received her first through seventh grade education in the two-room building before continuing to the Simms School in Harrisonburg.

“At that time, when we finished school here, we had to go to Harrisonburg to high school, and we passed two high schools on the way because at the time, you couldn’t go together,” Ross said. “We had a little dinky bus to take us to Harrisonburg to Simms.”

At the time, the Newtown school had no indoor bathroom facilities, and the children had to use outdoor toilets. A kitchen was later added to provide hot meals for students.

One room of the school taught first through fourth grades and the other taught fifth through seventh grades.

“We could walk to school, and we had quite a few teachers,” Ross said. “They were good teachers.”

Once the Supreme Court ruled segregation in education unconstitutional in 1954, Rosenwald schools became obsolete and many were abandoned or demolished, with only about 10 percent of them surviving today, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Preserving History

The Newtown Rosenwald school building survived, but it lost its characteristic bank of large windows and fell into disrepair over the years.

It became a store for a time, but was sold for $500 and turned into an auction house.

“A black lady owned the store and tried to get the community to buy it, but nobody wanted it because we would have used it for a rec center, and they would be drinking and dancing in it,” Ross said. “Now nobody is doing nothing to it. It’s an eyesore in the community.”

Ross wishes the school could be refurbished to restore it to its historical likeness.

“I wish something could be done to get it back, so we can have some use to it,” she said. “I don’t know how many more it is who have passed away and are at an age where they can’t be a part of making history with it.”

In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other groups put the schools on its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.

Palmer wishes to take it a step further by applying for and purchasing a historical marker for the site.

If approved, the marker will be ordered in April, so she has until then to raise the more than $1,500 needed to purchase it.

Palmer said she has “warm, fuzzy feelings” about bringing such diverse communities together for one cause.

“We have Rabbi Joe Blair at Beth El, which donated, the NAACP local chapter and other related organizations like the public school systems, district supervisor, town manager and the historical society,” she said. “Jewish, black and the rest of us are all working on this, and it’s very exciting.”

Palmer will also be showing a documentary at Court Square Theatre in Harrisonburg on May 1 at 7 p.m. about Rosenwald Schools to educate the public.

To help raise funds, send donations to Rosenwald School Fund P.O. 274, Bridgewater, VA 22812.

To learn more, visit valleyblackheritage.org or rosenwald.fisk.edu.

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Information from: Daily News-Record, https://www.dnronline.com

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