Help save Holland school

Published 9:26 pm Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Rosenwald schools are an integral part of the history of the rural South and one we must take steps today to save in Suffolk.

In the early 1900s, Sears, Roebuck and Co. leader Julius Rosenwald established the fund that bears his name to provide seed money for simple but safe schools where black children could learn. Communities also were expected to contribute with both public and private dollars.

More than 5,000 such schools were built across the southern United States. About a dozen of them were in Suffolk, and one of them was the Nansemond County Training School.

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It was built in 1924 and operated until 1970, having received a new building in 1956 and changed its name to Southwestern in 1964. After Southwestern High School graduated its last class in 1970, the newer building went on to become an intermediate school, a middle school and then an elementary school, which was finally closed this year.

Both buildings still stand, and a group of proud alumni has made its mission to see the schools turned into a community center, as happened successfully with another Rosenwald school, now the East Suffolk Recreation Center.

Other Rosenwald schools in Suffolk have not fared so well. In the North Suffolk neighborhood of Huntersville, for example, only a historical marker now commemorates the site where that community’s school stood after it was constructed in 1930-31. The school was torn down this summer to make room for three new houses, after an unsuccessful last-minute plea by the community to save the school.

The Nansemond County Training School/Southwestern High School alumni group is determined not to let that happen. Members have been organizing and making plans for years but have had to wait on the sidelines until the City Council and School Board finally agreed on a site for a new school. Then, they had to wait some more while the School Board built the new school.

The waiting period was not spent idly, though. Already, plans have been drawn up and alumni have been meeting with city and school officials to make their pitch.

The alumni also were heavily involved in the making of a documentary, “Strength Through Our Roots,” which premiered at Holland’s Mount Sinai Baptist Church on Saturday.

In just 40 minutes, the film chronicles both good times and bad from 1924 to 1970, with many alumni speaking on camera to share their personal experiences. It also fast-forwards to the present, with the opening of Pioneer Elementary School and the alumni’s plans for the future.

You can help support those plans by buying copies of the DVD, which costs $25, by calling Mae Burke at 284-8214. There also will be a public screening tentatively set for Jan. 15 at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.

You can also help by calling your City Council and School Board members and telling them you want the buildings preserved for future generations to learn from and enjoy.