Rosenwald schools ‘endangered’

Published 9:19 pm Monday, June 3, 2013

A statewide historical preservation organization is beginning a movement to catalog and help save schools throughout the state that educated black students in the first half of the 20th century.

Preservation Virginia named the Rosenwald schools as a group to its annual list of endangered historic sites in the state. The schools were built through a matching grant program beginning in 1917 and ending in 1932, funded by Sears, Roebuck and Co. part-owner Julius Rosenwald.

Mae Burke, an alumna of the Nansemond County Training School, stands in front of the building in 2010. It is one of a handful of Rosenwald schools still standing in Suffolk.

Mae Burke, an alumna of the Nansemond County Training School, stands in front of the building in 2010. It is one of a handful of Rosenwald schools still standing in Suffolk.

Of the more than 5,000 Rosenwald schools built across the rural South, approximately 381 were in Virginia, according to Preservation Virginia.

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However, nobody knows exactly how many of the schools remain. Many have been lost to the elements or to make way for new construction.

Of those that do remain, a few experienced successful restoration projects. The rest are in various states of disrepair.

Roughly 10 Rosenwald schools were built in Suffolk and the former Nansemond County. A handful survive, including the East Suffolk school, which is now the Parks and Recreation administration building; the Florence Graded School, which is now a storage building on the site of Florence Bowser Elementary School; and the Nansemond County Training School, located next to Southwestern Elementary School.

The first step in helping preserve the surviving Rosenwald schools in Virginia is finding out where they are, said Justin Sarafin, director of preservation initiatives and engagement at Preservation Virginia.

“To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a real comprehensive kind of assessment of what is still surviving,” Sarafin said.

The organization hopes to help alumni of the schools, historians and concerned community members organize to save the schools.

“I think what Preservation Virginia would hope to do is identify those that would be most viable for a successful re-use project,” Sarafin said. “What we would do is bring the case studies and the connections to really help local communities organize themselves in order to realize a project like that.”

Perhaps most important in the process of saving a threatened school is simply bringing attention to it, he said.

“For us, it’s about really raising public awareness as much as possible that these resources exist,” Sarafin said. “In terms of the greater public, there’s a huge amount of lack of knowledge that these things exist. These schools have fallen off of people’s radar screens.”

Sarafin said the schools are part of the “quickly disappearing cultural landscape.”

“They’re real touchstones in various communities,” he said. “They just represent so much. As historic preservationists, certainly we want to keep and record its architecture. But it’s architectural resources like this that, once lost — it’s at that point that community memory really starts to fade.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the project or who knows about a Rosenwald school in Suffolk or elsewhere in Virginia is encouraged to help with the project by calling Sarafin at 804-648-1889, ext. 317.