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Four Rosenwald schools stand in Suffolk

“Something is lost behind the ranges — go and find it.”

Mae Burke reads the mysterious words aloud, wondering at their meaning. The quote was hand-etched at some point in history in wet cement in front of the Nansemond County Training School, where Burke attended and graduated high school years ago.

The quote — apparently from a Rudyard Kipling poem — is oddly symbolic of the search for Rosenwald schools in the rural American South, and the quest to save them — from the elements, from destruction in the name of progress and from being lost to history.

The Rosenwald Rural School Building Program began in the early 20th century, when Sears, Roebuck & Co. mastermind Julius Rosenwald gave Booker T. Washington permission to use some of the money he had donated to Washington’s Tuskegee Institute for the construction of six small schools for blacks in rural Alabama. Those schools opened in 1913 and 1914.

Pleased with the results, Rosenwald set up the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1917. By the time the program ended in 1932, it had produced nearly 5,000 schools, 217 teachers’ houses and 163 shop buildings for the education of black students in the rural South.

One in every five rural schools for black students in the South was a Rosenwald school, according to a site dedicated to the building program at www.preservationnation.org.

The fund provided seed money for simple but safe schools where black children could learn. It wasn’t a handout, though. The local community — both blacks and whites — was expected to contribute to the fundraising and construction process. The schools became centers of the community before they were even built, as blacks held rallies to bring forth the needed money from the community.

The schools were constructed from simple materials with cookie-cutter floor plans, making Rosenwald schools not only cheap (the smallest plans could be built for less than $2,000), but also easily recognizable. That feature comes in handy nearly a century later, as historians and community activists try to decipher scarce or non-existent record-keeping to figure out which schools are Rosenwald schools.

In Suffolk and the former Nansemond County, a total of 10 schools are listed as Rosenwald schools by the Fisk University Rosenwald Fund database, which is regarded by most experts as the most comprehensive list of Rosenwald schools. However, one most likely is not a Rosenwald school, based on its date of construction, and five others have been demolished.

The disputed school, located in the community of Oakland, is listed in many official documents as a Rosenwald school. The Fisk University database says it was built in the early 1920s.

Quatro Hubbard, however, disagrees. The archivist with Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources contends that building was constructed much earlier, and therefore cannot be a Rosenwald school.

“I have checked the file for the Oakland School, and that complex dates from the late 19th century — does not look like a Rosenwald,” Hubbard wrote in an e-mail.

The schools that were located in the areas of Holland, Huntersville, Mill Road, Saratoga and Wilroy have been demolished, according to a 1997 correspondence from Suffolk Public Schools to a Karyn Childs of Newport News. That same year, Childs launched an aggressive campaign to save the school known in Rosenwald records as the “Shoulders Hill School” from demolition.

Though Childs could not be located for this story, her plan worked. The “Shoulders Hill School” is better known to most Suffolk residents as the storage building at the present Florence Bowser Elementary School.

The other surviving Rosenwald schools are the “Whaleyville School,” the “East Suffolk School,” and the “Nansemond County Training School.”

It is in front of this last building where Mae Burke reads the Kipling quote in the dried cement. Burke is one of the many alumni who have banded together to form the Nansemond County Training School Heritage Center, Inc. The group hopes to save the building from an untimely demise, and make it into a community center with a media room, library and exhibition room.

However, the group cannot take possession of the building until the school division vacates the property and moves into a planned replacement school for Southwestern Elementary, next door to the Rosenwald school, and Robertson Elementary in Whaleyville. A years-long stalemate among the school division, the city and residents of both communities over where to put the replacement school has jeopardized some of the funding for the project.

“As soon as they vacate this building, we can move on with our project,” Burke said. Most of the money, however, came from grant money that was tied to a timeline.

“This money is probably going back to the state,” Burke said. “We’re going to do the right thing and give it back.”

Burke said the group hopes to partner with alumni from East Suffolk High School, riding on the coattails of the successful East Suffolk Recreation Center.

“They have done just a splendid job,” Burke said.

Burke has attended several conferences on the Rosenwald schools.

“It keeps you up to date on what’s happening with the Rosenwald movement,” she said, rattling off facts she learned at the conference. Among those: The schools were built so that the sunlight would hit the classrooms, eliminating the need for electricity and some heating.

Rosenwald’s grandson still lives in Atlanta, but mostly keeps to himself out of fears people will ask him for money to help restore the schools. Rosenwald contributed not only to schools, but to artists, musicians and the YMCA.

Though the Nansemond County Training School occupies only a very small corner of the world, Burke sees its story as part of a larger trend.

“I see this happening so many times,” she said. “Society, as a whole, is very anxious to tear down the old. Part of the Rosenwald movement is leading the fight to restore.”

Burke hopes Rosenwald schools around the country that can still be saved will find champions amongst their alumni and be rescued.

“We don’t want to live all our lives and not leave anything for future generations,” Burke said. “We don’t want to live here and work here and raise our children here and have nothing to show for it.”

The efforts that have saved hundreds of Rosenwald schools across the South have inspired the group to keep going, Burke said.

“Many of them have been destroyed or just fallen down, but many of them have been saved,” she said. “We’re going to keep at this and keep at this and keep at this.”