Schools' historic ties to an unequal past

The small wooden building that once housed Queenstown Elementary School contains a paradox.

Built in the era of racial segregation, it was a place where black children received a second-rate education. Its teachers were paid less than white teachers, and its pupils learned from worn books discarded by white children.

But former pupils have surprisingly fond memories of the northern Anne Arundel County school, which they say was a place of warmth and caring - and a focal point for the black community. Some contend that they had a better school experience than later generations who attended racially integrated schools.

"Everybody needs a strong foundation," said Phyllis Queen Matthews, 72, a former pupil whose eight brothers and sisters also attended the school. "Queenstown Elementary School was our foundation."

Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court handed down its Brown vs. Board of Education decision, ruling that schools like Queenstown were inherently unequal and unconstitutional.

The case was a landmark for civil rights, but it sounded a death knell for thousands of black schools across the South.

In the years following Brown, black schools boarded up their doors as pupils left for better-equipped white schools. Many of the black schools were torn down; others were simply forgotten.

In recent years, however, emotional ties and a renewed interest in the historical significance of black schools have prompted communities and preservation groups to find and restore surviving schoolhouses. They have been adapted for modern uses, including museums, senior centers, residences and church buildings.

The largest movement - led by the Washington-based nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation - is focused on a group of more than 5,300 black schools built between 1917 and 1932 with the help of philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, a Sears, Roebuck and Co. executive inspired by Booker T. Washington.

Queenstown, one of the last Rosenwald schools built, was restored in 2000 and now houses a day care center and residents' association. The group is applying to have the building included on the National Register of Historic Places.

In their heyday, Rosenwald schools accounted for one in five black schools in the South, according to Mary Hoffschwelle, a history professor at Middle Tennessee State University and expert on the school-building program.

A crucial need

Rosenwald's "was one of the most significant initiatives in African-American public education" before Brown, she said.

At a time of limited educational opportunities for black students, Rosenwald schools filled a crucial need. Existing schools often were crowded, housed in buildings such as churches or barns and did not provide secondary education.

Rosenwald schools, which were built with a combination of grants, local taxes and black money and labor, "made a huge difference in the lives of individuals there," said John Hildreth, director of the trust's Southern office. "It made the best of a bad situation."

Because of the passage of time, and because many of the schools existed in areas that are still rural today, it is unclear how many have survived.

Unlike some other states, Maryland has not done a complete survey of its Rosenwald schools. Researchers disagree even on the number that were built.

The trust says that 153 Rosenwald schools were constructed in Maryland. But Sherri Marsh, an architectural historian who works for Anne Arundel County, says her review of the Rosenwald archives at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., showed that 292 schools were built in Maryland.

Anne Arundel has tracked down 10 surviving Rosenwald schools, out of an original 23. In Prince George's County, nine are left, including one that is part of the modern Highland Park School in Landover.

Elsewhere in the state, interest in former black schools extends beyond the schoolhouses built with Rosenwald's assistance.

Howard County black leaders are raising money to turn the former Harriet Tubman Junior-Senior High School, established in 1948, into a museum and community center. The one-room Ellicott City Colored School, which dates to the late 1800s, was reopened last year as a museum.

In Baltimore County, preservationists rescued Lutherville's Colored School No. 24, built in 1918, by turning it into a museum 80 years later. Carroll County's Sykesville Colored Schoolhouse, designated a state treasure in 1999, is being renovated for use as a "functional schoolhouse" museum.

What set Rosenwald schools apart was their state-of-the-art designs, copied even for white schools, according to historians.

From one-teacher schoolhouses to buildings designed for more than 10 teachers, each was thoughtfully designed. The schools had large windows facing east and west and white-painted interiors, to make the most of daylight; outdoor privies a certain distance from the building; and new desks and blackboards.

Because they invested money, labor and land into these schools - something that Rosenwald, a firm believer in the ideal of self-help, required - residents in the black community took great pride in them.

"It was very much the 'It takes a village' approach to educating children," Hoffschwelle said.

Naomi Gaither Jones, a former Queenstown Elementary pupil whose family donated the land on which the school was built, remembers the school as an extension of her family and community.

Teachers not only taught, but made vegetable soup for pupils in the winter and took extra care of needy children. Residents flocked to the school for gatherings and celebrations.

"I got [my education] from caring, loving and considerate teachers," said Jones, 71, who went on to college in Alabama.

Later generations of black residents, including Jones' eight children, went to school in nicer buildings and had newer books and higher-paid teachers. But Jones said they were not nurtured in the way she had been and did not have the same sense of community.

"It was devastating," she said of her children's schooling in the 1960s and 1970s. "When I visited the schools, you could see how they were being ostracized."

No sense of belonging

Her youngest daughter, Joni L. Jones, recalls feeling alienated in majority-white schools. "There was never a sense of pride or of belonging to any elementary school because nobody really wanted us there," she recalled.

Although the family never moved from their home in Queenstown (now part of Severn), the black neighborhood frequently was redistricted by the county Board of Education whenever a school became too crowded. Joni Jones attended four elementary schools in the 1970s, and one of her brothers attended six.

But the daughter agrees that previous generations were right to push for integrated schools, even if it meant giving up the sense of community that black pupils had enjoyed in schools such as Queenstown.

"I wouldn't have done anything differently because the community fought to get me into those schools," she said.