Dorchester County school gets attention for its role in history

Rosenwald Schools helped educate Black students in segregated South. Could a national park follow?
Published: Aug. 8, 2023 at 12:37 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 8, 2023 at 5:31 PM EDT
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ST. GEORGE, S.C. (WCSC/AP) - A part of history in St. George that was set to be bulldozed now has a bright future.

The Rosenwald School in St. George was a building many people may never have been aware of, but it was one of thousands across the south that educated black children during segregation. It opened in 1925 and closed in 1954, eventually falling into an extreme state of disrepair with a caving ceiling, deteriorating floors and chipped, peeling walls.

But a group of former students got together and came up with a plan to save their historic upper Dorchester County school. The newly renovated St. George Rosenwald School will officially become a museum and community center.

School was testament to history

It was in schools like the Dorchester County site, and nearly 5,000 others built in the American South a century ago, that Black students largely ignored by whites in power gained an educational foundation through the generosity of a Jewish businessman who could soon be memorialized with a national park.

They are now called Rosenwald Schools in honor of Julius Rosenwald, a part-owner and eventual president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., who teamed up with African American educator and leader Booker T. Washington to create the program to share the expenses of schools for Black children with the community.

There was no public transportation for the school’s students so most had to walk to school except for the lucky few, like Ordie Brown, who caught a ride on a donated bus.

“My father was fortunate enough to buy an old school bus and by getting that bus, I was able to drive that bus from the St. Mark community, bringing children from there, here to this school,” Brown said.

Rosenwald School historian Andrew Feiler says every county in the state had at least one Rosenwald School. Some had up to five. With no public transportation, attempts were made to place the schools in central, accessible locations.

Rosenwald gave $1,500 to each school; the remainder of the cost of each school had to be split between the Black community and local governments. For the Black community, cash, land, material or labor could count as their contribution, Feiler said.

“The leaders of this program reached out to the Black communities of the south and they said, ‘If you would contribute to the schools, because we want you to be a full partner in your progress.’” Feiler said.

Ralph James attended first and second grade at the school and now serves as chairman of the group of seven responsible for restoring the school to repair a caved ceiling, decayed floor and chipped, peeling walls.

“It’s a center of hope. It’s a center of encouragement,” James said. “It inspired us in spite of the odds and challenges we faced.”

The 76-year-old retired municipal judge has made it his life’s goal to restore his old school.

“Education has always been the key to success. Julius Rosenwald gave us that key,” James said.

Museum will document school’s early days and its impact

The six-classroom building will now serve as a museum, historic site, field trip venue and community gathering place for years to come. When visitors walk inside, they will see some of the original floors and some of the original student desks.

The building will feature memorabilia from the school including yearbooks, homemade band uniforms, major red uniforms, and pictures of graduating classes.

State Sen. John Mathews secured $65,000 in state funding while the group raised around $4 million for the project on their own.

“This community came together in a great way to make this project work,” U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn said. “This is the kind of thing that brings people together, and I’m so pleased that they are preserving this history.”

The St. George school was one of the larger ones with six classrooms and an auditorium. Most schools only had one or two classrooms. More than a third of America’s Black children in the first half of the 20th century were educated in a Rosenwald school.

Other Rosenwald schools have been converted into senior centers, town halls, special event venues or restaurants. Many remain recognizable by the careful plans Rosenwald approved. Tall windows oriented to the east and west assured an abundance of natural light and ventilation in rural areas where electricity often didn’t reach until after the Great Depression.

In St. George, the vision isn’t just restoring the school, but providing a sense of the thriving African American neighborhood surrounding it during segregation. Businesses including a grocery store, barber shop and pool hall benefitted the Black community.

Inside the restored school, two classrooms look almost as they did 70 years ago. Another classroom is a public meeting room. The auditorium has been turned into a multipurpose space and will have exhibits detailing the school’s history and hands-on science displays, James said.

“You can feel what it was like just like I did,” he said.

A grand opening is planned for September.