Aug. 26--Come November, Pender County voters will decide whether to approve a $75 million bond for new school construction and existing school renovations.
But one Pender County resident is working to raise funds to renovate a historic school building that is no longer used.
Between the founding of the Rosenwald Fund in 1917 and its end during the Great Depression (1932), the African-American residents of Pender County built 19 Rosenwald schools on 15 different sites. A total of 813 Rosenwald schools were built in North Carolina, more than any other state, and Pender County led the region.
Claudia Stack of Rocky Point is spearheading an effort to raise $5,000 before winter sets in to pay for a new roof on the former Lee's Chapel School, a Rosenwald school near Maple Hill built in 1923-24. It's a necessary first step in preserving the structure from any further damage.
On Aug. 23, she and a group of volunteers planned to remove a false ceiling that was put in the building some years ago, and which is no longer serving any purpose while it is also getting in the way of the eventual rafter repair and re-roofing.
African-Americans paid the same taxes in support of public education as their white counterparts, but their children were not allowed to attend the schools their tax dollars helped build, Stack said.
So they raised their own money for schools, more than $4.7 million for school construction in the Rosenwald era, a figure that nearly matched $4.3 million in grants from the fund. The fund, established by Sears, Roebuck & Co. President Julius Rosenwald, matched local fundraising efforts and provided building plans for the small but functional and elegant structures.
"They had to contribute 20 or 25 percent," Stack said of the communities that built Rosenwald schools. "These were people who made, probably on average, 50 cents to $1 a day. That was a huge sacrifice."
To build the Canetuck School (1921-22), for instance -- perhaps the most fully restored and fully functional Rosenwald school in Pender County, now used as a community center -- nearby residents raised $1,226 over three years to help pay for construction.
"That was really an amazing amount of money when you think about it," Stack said.
Lee's Chapel School was sold at auction, as were most Rosenwald schools, after states began building equalization schools -- separate, but equal -- in the 1950s; West Pender, now a middle school near Burgaw, was originally built for that purpose.
"The black community had to sign over their ownership of the land and the school once they raised the money" to build them, Stack said. "When the county decided to stop using those buildings, they weren't automatically given back to the community. They were auctioned off."
Lee's Chapel was purchased by the Pickett family, and Doug Pickett, a member of the second generation of his family to attend classes there, now owns the building.
According to Stack, Pickett's father modified the building somewhat, adding heaters and air conditioning, and it was used for many years for church gatherings and family reunions, and events of that nature.
Holes appeared in the roof just a few years ago, and they have led to further degradation of the interior.
"The siding and the straightness of the building is quite good," Stack said. "Unfortunately, the water coming in has rotted out part of the floor, and some of the rafters need to be replaced."
Pickett would like to see the building fully restored, though that is an expensive proposition. If the money can be raised, he said he can foresee the day when the old school is open again for tours and lessons in history.
Elizabeth Rosenwald Varat, Julius Rosenwald's granddaughter, and her husband Michael Varat, have offered, Stack said, to match the first $2,500 in donations for the new roof through the Middle Road Foundation, a private family philanthropic fund.
"Back in 2003, I began to realize that some of the buildings I saw as I drove around were actually old school buildings, and I started to look into that," said Stack, a teacher at D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy in Wilmington. "What keeps me moving is wanting people to know that African American students have a really rich educational heritage
"The Rosenwald building program was really influential in our region, but it was certainly not the only school-building effort being made by African-American families during that time," she said. "Before, during and after the Rosenwald Fund, African-American communities were building and shaping schools in their way, as they saw fit."
For more information, go to underthekudzu.org.
Community News: 343-2364
On Twitter: @StarNewsOnline
(c)2014 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)
Visit the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) at www.starnewsonline.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services