Can I tell you about our school?"
I was looking at pictures of a small wooden schoolhouse in eastern North Carolina, circa 1919, when Carol Jones Shields came by to share its inspirational lineage.
Originally called the Hamilton Colored School, this four-room structure hosted grades 1–12 with three well-equipped classrooms plus a storage room. Big enough that, for the first time, the African-American children in the rural Martin County community of Hamilton could go to school past the eighth grade. "It was transformational," Shields told me.
It was a Rosenwald school.
It was my good fortune to be at the 2015 National Rosenwald Schools Conference in Durham on Thursday, the day we awoke to the news that a white man killed nine black people in Charleston, South Carolina.
Yet again, our country would be split over whether this lone gunman was an aberration or more evidence of a sickness deep in the American psyche.
I have no stomach for that debate. Racism is our original sin. We've not expunged it.
That said, I recognize that my fellow white folks have a certain resistance to history lessons about slavery and lynching. I'm guessing most black folks don't enjoy them, either.
Instead, we yearn for stories of racial uplift, of blacks rising and whites on their side. That's the Rosenwald story of a century ago, when Julius Rosenwald, a wealthy white businessman who headed Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Booker T. Washington, a black educator whose parents were slaves, teamed up to build 5,300 schools for African-American children across the rural South.
Better, it's the Rosenwald story today, as black and white activists join hands to restore the few such schools that remain and commemorate the many that don't. That was the focus of the conference, held under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Sharing the Past, Shaping the Future," was an apt title.
"Our hearts are heavy, because we again see hatred, because of differences, take innocent lives," said Bettie Murchison, giving a welcoming speech on behalf of the N.C. Rosenwald Schools Coalition. "But our spirits can be lifted by the work we do here."
Murchison quoted Booker T. Washington, who once said at a forum with Rosenwald: "The time has come when the best colored people and the best white people should get together and know each other."
Yet again, Murchison said, it's time to have "those courageous conversations."
Having conversations is what Shields has been doing for six years, first as a volunteer for Roanoke River Partners, Inc. and now as the nonprofit's executive director.
When RRP gained ownership of the Hamilton school, Shields set out to find and interview its former students. She's white, with a bit of Native American mixed in. One of the first doors she knocked on brought her to the Randolph sisters, a foursome who attended the school, moved to disparate places, and came back to own three adjoining houses in Hamilton.
They helped her track down 100 other Hamilton Colored alums.
"Put it this way," Shields says, trying to describe the close bond she's formed with the sisters. "We'll never be separated in our lives from that day forward."
RRP is a regional group formed to promote the area's eco-tourism, including camping and, yes, some history. The old Hamilton school sits right on the river. RRP is restoring the original four-room building to be like new. Two rooms added later will become a meeting place for the African-American community and an interpretative center about the river and Rosenwald lore.
"The idea is to preserve the community's heritage and build on it for economic development," Shields says.
The same impetus drives Joann Artis Stevens, a black activist who foresees the now-deteriorated Snow Hill Colored School being the hub of a developing African-American historic district in Greene County. Unfortunately, the county owns it, and white leaders there have been unwilling to restore the school or let Stevens' community group do it, she told me.
"It's important to us for economic development and as a source of pride for the African-American community," Stevens adds. "It connects us to our culture and our history."
After the conference, I found four surviving Rosenwald schools in Wake County, including one owned by St. Matthew's Baptist Church in northeast Raleigh and another by Juniper Level Baptist Church in Garner. Both are being restored, as is the lone survivor in Durham County, the Russell School in Hillsborough.
Every Rosenwald school was built with a grant from Julius Rosenwald, matched or exceeded by funds raised in each black community. Rosenwald also required the school district to contribute. The four-room Hamilton school was among the bigger ones. It cost $4,500 total, according to Shields.
No question the Rosenwald schools were transformational. They came at a time, from 1912 to 1932, when the children and grandchildren of slaves, still trapped in Jim Crow, were determined that their kids would be well-educated, able to build strong businesses and communities of their own and to claim equal status with whites. A rich white man helped them succeed.
It's a great conversation-starter as we turn, black and white, to the real challenge: how to make amends for the original sin.
This article appeared in print with headline "Courageous conversations."