Monday, February 20, 2012

Corporations once helped, not hurt, public education

This is a great story that illustrates how corporate America once stood in partnership with public education and educators. If only to remind us of what that was like, this story should be shared far and wide.

Building construction student Frank Kay has worked on framing a building before. But the one he’s helping build on the Tri-County Technical College campus in Anderson is different.

Kay, 41, is proud of this building, because when it is finished, it will teach the local community something about what his ancestors went through to be educated. This one-room schoolhouse will be a replica of a Rosenwald school that was built for the local black community in the 1920s and 1930s.

“Anything to do with education and our heritage is good,” Kay said. “Maybe these younger kids will see what their ancestors went through to get an education. Maybe that will inspire them to go on and get an education. Because everybody needs an education these days.”

In this schoolhouse, people will see that those who went to class in a Rosenwald school made the most of natural light instead of using a lot of electricity. They did not have indoor plumbing. Books for the classroom were scarce, and often were worn and ragged after they were passed on from the local white schools.

There were 5,357 Rosenwald schools from Maryland to Texas, funded by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. and contributions from the local black communities. The schools were built between 1910 and 1932.

Of those 5,357 schools, 500 were in South Carolina. Nineteen of them were in Anderson County.

Three of them still stand in Anderson County.

That’s why this building means so much to Kay, and especially to those who learned about math, reading and writing in the Rosenwald schools.

“This was all we had,” said Genevieve Smith-Brown, who attended two of the Rosenwald schools in Anderson County.

As those schools fade from the local landscape, local historians, educators and community leaders are trying to pass on what the Rosenwald schools represented to a future generation.

A permanent exhibit, By the Book, on display at the Anderson County Museum details the history of the local Rosenwald schools.

Tri-County Tech has joined in a partnership with the Anderson County Museum to build the Rosenwald replica, using the college’s building construction technology students, said Tim Bowen, head of the college’s Anderson campus.

By the end of the year, the one-room school house will hopefully be open to the public for various educational programs and gatherings, Bowen said.

“This is a part of our history that is quickly slipping away,” Bowen said. “So the more we thought about it, the more this project made sense. It was about education, cultural and historical preservation and connecting this campus to the community we serve.”

An hourlong program about the history of the Rosenwald schools will be presented Tuesday at the Westside Community Center in Anderson.

It is the second year for the program, which hosted by the Anderson County Human Relations Council.

Bowen will speak about the Rosenwald project at the college. Anderson County Museum Curator Alison Hinman will speak about the significance of the Rosenwald schools and education to the local black community.

“We put this together to enlighten the community, and to show the challenges and struggles the black community went through to get any kind of education,” said Delores Green, Anderson County Human Relations Council president.

Green said her father, Lawrence Green, was a student at the Anderson County Training School in Pendleton, which was built before the Rosenwald funding but received a $1,400 grant from the Rosenwald program in 1921.

“He was one of nine children,” Green said. “Half of his siblings would go for half of the school year, and the other half would go to school the rest of the school year. That way, someone was always working in the fields.”

To Hinman, the dedication members of the black community had to sending their children to school, despite the difficulties and the primitive conditions of the schools well into the 1930s, is well worth remembering.

“I think there needs to be a balance of history,” Hinman said. “The Rosenwald schools were important for the black community. Most of our early history gives a passing glance of our African-American history. This is an attempt to balance that out. I don’t think you can tell the history of Anderson County without telling all of its history.”

To show how important education was to the black community, one can look to the Greeley Institute, the first private school for black students opened in the Anderson County area before 1899.

The school was built in Anderson, along South Fant Street, and was opened in June 1870.

“The attendance record was astounding,” Hinman said. “Education was a vital aspect of the African-American community. For the black community, education was the way they were going to prosper. Many families made huge sacrifices to make sure they kept their children in school.”

Given an opportunity to earn an education, they seized it. What an inspiration.

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