Right before Christmas, two cousins, Betty McKnight and Bonnie Johnson, witnessed a significant part of history get erased before their eyes when an oilfield company bulldozed a notable one-room school building off Buck Sherrod Road to make way for a new well.
“That broke our hearts,” McKnight said of the building, which housed the Friend Enterprise School. The site was one of 21 identified historic Rosenwald Schools in Harrison County built through the Rosenwald Fund, an initiative to educate African-American communities in the southern states during the Jim Crow era.
Friend Enterprise was located in the Scottsville School District. McKnight attended the school in first grade, and so did her relatives, including Johnson’s mother, Elizabeth Scott. Scott was a first grader there around 1923. McKnight was a first grader around 1950.
“It was just one teacher,” McKnight recalled. “She taught from kindergarten on up to whenever until we got to another school.”
The school not only served as an avenue of opportunity, but also as a reminder of freedmen’s liberty as communities persevered to ensure an education for their families. Thus, losing the site was devastating.
“It devastated me because I would have to pass by it every day because I still had relatives that lived on Buck Sherrod Road,” said 75-year-old Johnson, sharing how the school was still visible from the road.
“Listening at my mother, they enjoyed going there,” Johnson recalled. “It was the only place for learning for them until they come through with Central High and Pemberton.
“That was the only school they knew to get teaching from,” she said.
A vanguard of education
The historic Rosenwald Schools were all made possible, starting in 1917, by Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. of Chicago. The National Trust for Historic Preservation also credits Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute for partnering with Rosenwald on the effort.
“The effort has been called the most important initiative to advance black education in the early 20th century,” the National Trust for Historic Preservation website, savingplaces.org, states. “By 1928, one-third of the South’s rural black schoolchildren and teachers were served by Rosenwald schools.”
According to the Texas Historical Commission, the Rosenwald Fund donated more than $28 million in 15 states between 1920 and 1932, resulting in 527 funded buildings on approximately 466 school campuses in Texas.
“Rosenwald Schools represent an important chapter in Texas history, reflecting the initiative of African-American communities, which sought educational opportunities for their children during the Jim Crow Era, when all public schools in Texas were segregated by law,” the commission notes. “With financial assistance from the Rosenwald Fund, these communities built modern school facilities, many of which continued to operate as schools into the 1960s.”
According to the the Texas Historical Commission, most Rosenwald buildings were made of wood following standardized plans, and many were destroyed after closing as schools, while a few were converted to churches or community centers.
McKnight said they were under the impression that the oil company was going to try to save the Friend Enterprise Rosenwald school and that a historical marker was going to be sought for it. It took them by surprise to see it knocked down.
“It is history,” said McKnight.
“They had told us that they were going to save it for us, but they didn’t. They smashed it in,” she said. “It was their choice. But, something came up so we thought maybe they would put a marker there, even though they couldn’t save the school.”
“They busted it in and set it on fire; and you know that was heartbreaking because that school was over 100 years old because my grandmother went to school there,” McKnight said.
The one-room classroom may have just been “an old thing” to some, but to the community and the families that Rosenwald schools served, it meant the world.
“It was important to the community. It was a primary school,” said Johnson.
“It wouldn’t have taken that much to restore it and move it from where it was and relocate it somewhere,” she said. “As many years as it had been, the lumber was still good. Through all the floods and everything, it was still standing.”
To avoid the same fate, the Harrison County Historical Commission has taken the initiative to ensure that other Rosenwald sites in the county have the potential of at least having a certain level of security in order to save such critical part of history.
“If someone thinks they have a Rosenwald school or any school building on their property, contact us,” Bill Whitis, chairman of the HCHC, said.
“And if they want it recorded as an archaeological site, they can contact Bill at the historical commission, Bill can contact me, and I can make arrangements with the property owner to go out and look at it,” Tom Speir, vice chairman of the organization, added.
A mission to save
Speir noted that the Rosenwald schools played such a pivotal role in history that the Texas Historical Commission has a special section on Rosenwald Schools in Texas on its website. He said the Harrison County Historical Commission started exploring the schools’ history back in 2014, when the Texas Historical Commission reached out about the number of Rosenwald schools that were in Harrison County because they were interested in listing the schools that were still standing on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We found one or two, and I recorded one or two as archaeological sites,” Speir said.
Speir said while a listing on the national registry is great, it doesn’t provide any level of protection, which is why they are striving to take one step further to record them as archaeological sites to at least provide some level of protection.
“That gives them that first level of protection from public works projects (like) pipelines, cell towers, expanding road right of ways, that sort of things, because if they’re going to do a public works project, they have to get a permit and part of that permit is are there any historically-significant sites in the proposed route or location, and they have to contact us,” he said.
“Austin will look at their map and say: ‘Well yes, these sites have been recorded as archaeological sites,” Speir explained. “The gas company will have to go pay an archaeologist to go check it out and see if it’s worth saving or whatever, and they base their decision on that.”
Speir said they’ve been able to locate and document all the sites with the help of commission member, Gerald “Jerry” Gibson, who is retired from the Library of Congress.
“He took that ball and he ran with it,” said Speir.
In his research, Gibson was able to use cross-references such as old obituaries and newspaper articles to develop his list.
“Then he matches it to an old (soil) map that shows the school in that community, and he’ll find another cross reference and say OK, that is where that school (is) and he’ll gather all this evidence,” explained Speir. “He’s been able to figure out where the school districts were and which schools fell in which school districts.”
Throughout his two years of research, Gibson has not only driven to the sites, but interviewed former students. The preservation of those schools is ultimately up to the current property owner, Speir explained.
“We think there are two or three other schools that may still be standing,” said Speir. “We’re quietly continuing to do research, but any help we can get from anybody that knows where a school was, particularly one that there may still be a building standing, we would appreciate that help so that we could go get in touch with the property owner and get permission to go look at it and record it and give it that level of protection.”
Speir said the property owner would have to ask him to record it as an archaeological site, which can be done at no cost.
“And again, any further protection is up to the property owner,” he stressed. “We will encourage them to protect it and preserve it, but that’s pretty much what we can do.”
Gibson said the location of the Woodlawn School CTS is unknown, for instance. They welcome any information on that particular Rosenwald school’s location.
The Rosenwald schools, in particular, were all identical and could be recognized from anywhere. The design was always either a one or two-room schoolhouse, Speir noted.
“Then there would always be a well,” he said.
McKnight recalls how they would draw water from the well to drink.
“It was a lovable city,” she said of the community that surrounded her Rosenwald school, Friend Enterprise. “We walked to school because we were in walking distance.”
And just like a church that allowed families to worship together, the school provided a place for families to learn together.
“It was a fun type thing. Everybody was related,” McKnight recalled. “Even to the teacher that taught, she was a relative. Our priority was to learn.”
Alumni from the schools went on to attend universities in cities, such as Houston and Dallas, McKnight said.
“Some became superintendents,” she recalled.
She, herself, became an entrepreneur, operating McKnight’s Bar-B-Que. McKnight said she’s grateful for her education at the Rosenwald schools. While she started out at Friend Enterprise in first grade, she spent second to ninth grade at Rosenwald School No. 21 on FM 31, just north of Crossroads.
“They had five teachers there,” McKnight said. “It was much bigger because Friend Enterprise consolidated with Rosenwald. When we left there, that’s when we went to Pemberton.”
She’ll never forget her days at the Rosenwald schools.
“It gave me the sense of the fact that we need to learn and how important learning was,” she said. It also showed how important unity was. “We were concerned about each other — all the kids. It’s not like it is now. It gave us that togetherness.”
She said once the school consolidated with the Rosenwald location on FM 31, the building on Buck Sherrod was used for Sunday school and community gatherings.
“I went to the 19th of June (events) and stuff like that,” she said. “That was the center of attraction, Friend Enterprise.”
The loss of her school not only crushed her, but also disappointed Pct. 2 County Commissioner Zephaniah Timmins, whom her cousin, Johnson, reached out to when learning of the building’s demise.
He’s glad to see the the Harrison County Historical Commission step in, however, to try to do what they can to encourage the preservation of these buildings.
“The history of these schools should be significant to our black heritage,” he said.
Jim McCutchens, president of the NAACP Harrison County Branch No. 6185, agreed.
“With an education, an informed person is an enlightened person that can handle their own business,” said McCutchens. “It opened the doors for many of us African-Americans to learn and get an education and not only be able to read, but know what you’re reading and be able to apply.”
He said it gave aspiring doctors and lawyers a foundation beyond agriculture, which was the main job available to African-Americans during that era. And although she didn’t attend a Rosenwald school, Johnson shared how the school’s legacy always gave her a sense of pride.
“I was proud because my parents and fore-parents and things had gone there,” said Johnson. “My grandmother got started there because her parents didn’t have that kind of money to advance her so she could go on. All they had were cotton fields and stuff like that out there.”
“Some of our well-educated teachers that we had in our Marshall ISD school system went there,” she added. “That’s where they got their start at.”
Johnson recalls her very own history teacher, Willie Dean Roberts at Pemberton High School, being a product of a Rosenwald school.
“She would often talk about Free Enterprise School and Kelley School,” Johnson recalled.
She hopes remaining Rosenwald schools can be saved and not suffer destruction like her family’s beloved Friend Enterprise.
“It really meant something to the community, and to see them come along and be torn down and destroyed, and the memories that go along with it, is (disturbing),” Johnson said.
According to the Texas Historical Commission, the Rosenwald Fund supported the construction of schools, teachers’ homes, and shop buildings in small cities and unincorporated rural communities in 82 counties in Texas.
A Rosenwald site that still exists today in Harrison County is the former Woodside School in Karnack, which was renamed George Washington Carver in the 1930s, in honor of the African-American agricultural scientist and inventor. Speir said the school building still has the native stone.
In addition to the Texas Historical Commission and the Harrison County Historical Commission, the National Trust is also joining in the fight to save what was once known as the pride of these rural communities.
“The National Trust has joined forces with grassroots activists, local officials and preservationists to raise awareness of this important, but little known segment of our nation’s history, placing Rosenwald Schools on its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list,” the savingplaces.org website states. “The National Trust is providing technical assistance, grants, workshops and conferences to help save these icons of progressive architecture for community use.”
A list of Harrison County schools noted on the Rosenwald Fund’s archival records housed at Fisk University can be found at: http://rosenwald.fisk.edu.