Lawrenceville will save historic black school, add museum and library

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Lawrenceville will save historic black school, add museum and library

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CITY OF LAWRENCEVILLE
A historic photo of Lawrenceville's segregation-era Hooper Renwick School. 

The city of Lawrenceville will not demolish an historic, segregation-era school for black children, officials announced Thursday.

They’ll instead convert the original, 12-room Hooper Renwick School into a “civic space” with a museum — and a new public library branch next door. 

A new, $150 million mixed-use development will eventually go up nearby, but officials declined to release details about that during Thursday afternoon’s ceremony. The festivities, they said, were meant to be all about Hooper Renwick’s history.

And its future.

“I’m a giddy as a little kid on Christmas morning,” Theresa Bailey, a graduate of the school and leader of the Hooper Renwick Legacy Preservation Committee, said. “Can’t you just feel the ancestors looking down on us today?

Gwinnett County’s first school for African-American children opened in Lawrenceville in 1895, but was destroyed by a tornado in 1924. A black man named Mack Renwick donated three acres on Neal Boulevard for a new facility and, for the better part of two decades, classes were held in a three-room building on the property. (The Hooper part of the school’s name later came from that of longtime principal Marshall M. Hooper.)

The main brick structure that’s still standing today – and will now be repurposed by Lawrenceville officials – was built around 1945 and educated black children until Gwinnett County schools were desegregated in 1968. 

The facility then closed to the public before reopening in the 1990s to serve special needs students. It closed again in the 2010s and the city of Lawrenceville brought the property shortly thereafter, planning to tear the school down.

Lawrenceville Mayor Judy Jordan Johnson, right, signs a resolution saving the historic Hooper Renwick School on Thursday while Theresa Bailey, a graduate of the school and chairperson of the Hooper Renwick Legacy Preservation Committee, looks on. Tyler Estep

Then a group of Hooper Renwick graduates spoke up, and the 12-member preservation committee was formed. They met with city officials several times over the last four months or so. 

A lot of tough conversations were had, Lawrenceville City Manager Chuck Warbington said, but officials walked away with a better sense of what the school meant to Gwinnett’s black community — and what it could mean for the future.

“We have a special and unique opportunity to take a site known for its exclusion and make it an inclusive and collaborative place for the whole community,” Warbington said. 

Details are scant, but the plan is for the old school to hold community meeting rooms and a museum exploring the history of African-Americans in Gwinnett County. The current Lawrenceville branch of the Gwinnett County Public Library will be moved to a new facility built on the same site. 

“Design and initial preservation activities” were expected to begin next year, with completion sometime in 2020 or 2021, the city said. 

Details about the privately funded, $150 million mixed-use development being planned for the area nearby will be released next week, Warbington said.

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