Old school teaches how things were

This recreation of a 1920s school (above) is in the Cave Springs Welcome Center and Museum in that northeast Georgia town. Not far away, an abandoned first-grade building from the Fairview Colored School was recently discovered, and an effort is on to restore it as a tourist site and education center about black history.

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This recreation of a 1920s school (above) is in the Cave Springs Welcome Center and Museum in that northeast Georgia town. Not far away, an abandoned first-grade building from the Fairview Colored School was recently discovered, and an effort is on to restore it as a tourist site and education center about black history.

Cave Spring building houses ghosts of long era of segregation

Cave Spring — It’s been more than eight decades, almost three generations, since the people of this small northwest Georgia town (pop. 1,051) last fell under the spell of the old Rosenwald school on a hill overlooking what used to be a cotton field.

Pooling their resources together in 1925 to build the Fairview Colored School, the segregated community came together to establish a place to educate black children. The white community pitched in $1,000, the black community $200, with a matching donation from Julius Rosenwald, a Northern philanthropist.

The school was in use until 1968 and all but forgotten until Joyce Smith, a 56-year-old with an infectious zeal for doing what’s right, and whose father was a principal at the school in the 1950s, decided to save the old structure. She hopes to make it a landmark and enduring reminder of the school’s lessons of the past.

The school is nearly covered in kudzu, its floors sagging and roof caving in, its fate, until Smith came along, in the hands of gravity and rot.

“When I found out that school was still there I said ‘there is no way we are going to let that go,’” she says. “We can still learn from that school. But first we’ve got to save it.”

ExploreAtlanta photographer documents the life-changing Rosenwald schools

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The remnants of the Fairview Colored School, built in 1925, are almost swallowed by kudzu, so reviving the building won’t be a simple job. “We can still learn from that school. But first we’ve got to save it,” says Joyce Smith, who began the preservation campaign.

Credit: Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com

The remnants of the Fairview Colored School, built in 1925, are almost swallowed by kudzu, so reviving the building won’t be a simple job. “We can still learn from that school. But first we’ve got to save it,” says Joyce Smith, who began the preservation campaign.

Credit: Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
The remnants of the Fairview Colored School, built in 1925, are almost swallowed by kudzu, so reviving the building won’t be a simple job. “We can still learn from that school. But first we’ve got to save it,” says Joyce Smith, who began the preservation campaign.

Credit: Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com

The Rosenwald schools were the brainchild of Booker T. Washington and funded from 1912 to 1932 by Rosenwald, a president and later chairman of retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Co. The idea was to provide seed money to build schools for black children in the rural South where, in many cases, there were no schools they could attend. The seed money compelled the community to come up with the remaining funds.

In all, about 5,300 Rosenwald schools were built in 15 states in the South and Southwest, 253 in Georgia, of which only 48 remain.

The state Historic Preservation Division reports that although the Georgia schools are in varying conditions, some of the structures are still in use.

In March, Smith began the coalescing of forces it will take to bring Fairview back from the dead.

She staged a fundraiser in town. It was like ringing a bell for the volunteer fire department to douse a blaze. Two- hundred people showed up. Interest and involvement were ignited. They raised $3,000. The Georgia Power Foundation threw in another $2,500.

Smith dreams of building a kind of historical village around the old school, which she estimates could cost $2 million.

But first she wants to save the old schoolhouse, which will cost tens of thousands of dollars, or more, just to shore up the foundation; and preserve what remains, then reconstruct what has been lost to time.

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This photo shows the first- grade class at Fairview School in 1949. It is in the Cave Springs Welcome Center and Museum.

Credit: Courtesy of the Cave Springs Welcome Center

This photo shows the first- grade class at Fairview School in 1949. It is in the Cave Springs Welcome Center and Museum.

Credit: Courtesy of the Cave Springs Welcome Center

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This photo shows the first- grade class at Fairview School in 1949. It is in the Cave Springs Welcome Center and Museum.

Credit: Courtesy of the Cave Springs Welcome Center

Credit: Courtesy of the Cave Springs Welcome Center

While she works on raising the remainder of the money, Smith has opened a Fairview Colored School exhibit in the new Cave Spring Welcome Center and Museum so visitors can learn more about the school’s importance.

At the opening of the exhibit, three members of the old Fairview glee club from the late 1940s — black men with weathered faces and soulful voices — sang the hymn “This little light of mine/I’m gonna let it shine.”

Visitors looked at a photograph of a graduating class of 1950-1951, the students in gowns and caps; a photograph of a first-grade class taken in 1949 with the girls wearing ribbons in their hair; and a diploma.

There are also replicas of the desks and tables, donated by a local woodworker who crafted them from old drawings.

The transportation of this town’s spirit by a Rosenwald school is no surprise to Jeanne Cyriaque, African-American Programs Coordinator for the Georgia Historic Preservation Division, who has spent the past decade crisscrossing the state in search of surviving Rosenwald schools.

“These schools changed the communities then, brought them together, and they’re changing them now,” says Cyriaque.

Cyriaque says she’s almost certain the old school on the hill is a Rosenwald, given the documentation she and Smith have found.

There are Rosenwald schools still in service, usually as community centers, in Acworth, Cassville, Cusseta, Douglas, Vidalia and Brunswick, said Cyriaque.

In Douglas, a brick Rosenwald building is being used on a school campus, a rarity. Most of the schools were torn down or fell out of use after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that banished the South’s “separate but equal” school systems for black students.

“We know a Rosenwald was built in Cave Spring because of the records,” says Cyriaque. “But we’re not 100 percent certain yet that this is the building. It has the features of a Rosenwald, but the bricks in the foundation might be from a later period than records show the Rosenwald was built.”

Even though Smith has found more than 250 students who attended the school, the question is whether the Rosenwald school was another building nearby or that building on the hill covered in kudzu, said Cyriaque.

What’s missing, and what might be the final clue that will sanction the old building as a landmark, is a photograph taken when it was finished or under construction in 1925, she says.

“Unfortunately we haven’t found one. Not a lot of people had cameras in those days.”

That’s where another Cave Spring volunteer, city councilwoman and Cave Spring Historical Society president Peggy Allgood, has joined the cause, though she admits it’s not entirely in the interest of preserving history. She is an elected official. And there is the matter of tourism.

“It’s is our big industry here,” says Allgood. “And the biggest part of our tourism is historic value. We’ve got a lot of old homes here and buildings. If we can find a picture in our records that will prove that it is a Rosenwald, then it will help history, and help tourism.”

She jokes that either the town gets more tourists “to support our fine restaurants, or I have to gain 100 pounds. And I’d rather not gain 100 pounds.”

Jacquelyn Days Serwer, chief curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which has been collecting artifacts from a South Carolina Rosenwald school, says it’s tremendously important that when Rosenwald schools are found, they be preserved.

“These schools represent a lot of sad, bitter moments in our history,” she says. “But they also represent a cohesiveness in communities that existed when they built them that might otherwise be forgotten.”

Cyriaque said that when schools were segregated in Georgia the state and school boards spent seven to ten times as much on white schools as they did on black schools.

“The black students had to use used school books, if they had any,” she says. “And white students often had buses to take them to school when black students had to walk.”

Ted Barnett, one of the members of the old Fairview School glee club, said he remembers attending the school in the late ’40s and how tough times were economically. “We just had two or three changes of clothes we wore all the time.”

He also recalls the discrimination.

“I remember having to go around to the side or out back of a restaurant to get food,” he says. “The thing that school taught me was you couldn’t let that discourage you. That school is important because it helps us remember the segregated parts and the integrated parts of our history.”

Smith says her dream of preserving history on a Cave Spring hillside has a long way to go yet.

“I think it may take about $2 million dollars to rebuild the school” and a complex of two other buildings she believes were built there as part of the Rosenwald school.

In July, she is staging a reunion of Fairview graduates and has sent invitations as far as Germany and Anchorage, Alaska, inviting the old alumni. So far, Smith thinks maybe 100 will attend.

She and volunteers plan to record the old students’ stories to compile an oral history of the school.

The mayor of Cave Spring, Rob Ware, is all for the effort, but he says he’s a pragmatist too. In these tough times raising that much money to preserve what many believe is a town jewel is a tall order.

“If there’s one thing there is no shortage of in Cave Spring, it’s old buildings that need to be restored,” he said. “And keeping up with history can be expensive.”

Or it can be priceless.