Rosenwald Schools’ legacy discussed

The Valley Banner

HARRISONBURG — Esther Nizer has seen the little building just outside Elkton change over the years.

It hasn’t been used much recently, but the 63-year-old remembers the two-room building at 1205 Diamond Lane as the Newtown School.

“A couple of my local folks might not know that I went to school there before I went to high school,” she said.

Nizer was one of about 105 people to attend a discussion on historic Rosenwald Schools — such as Newtown School — at the Beth El Congregation synagogue in Harrisonburg last week.

While most of the audience consisted of students from Broadway, East Rockingham and Spotswood high schools, several community members also came to hear Stephanie Deutsch discuss the historic schools.

Deutsch, whose book “You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South,” discussed the founding and construction of the schools.

The schools were built throughout the South through a partnership between Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, philanthropist and president of Sears Roebuck.

Deutsch said the schools were essential to providing an education for African-American students when black schools in the South received little to no funding.

“Although there had been a lot of progress since the slaves had been emancipated, in many ways, at this time, the very beginning of the 20th century, things were not really getting better,” Deutsch said. “In some ways, they were getting worse.”

Thousands of the schools sprung up throughout the South, including 360 in Virginia and two in Rockingham County — one in Elkton and one in McGaheysville.

The McGaheysville School closed prior to desegregation due to low enrollment and was demolished when U.S. 33 was widened in the 1960s.

The Newtown School was built in 1921 and closed in 1965 as segregation came to an end after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.

Deutsch said $872 was raised locally for the school and the Rosenwald fund donated $1,000. Rockingham County also chipped in $2,628. It has since been used as an antique store and storage building.

Bridgewater resident Rosemarie Palmer is working with the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project to revive the Newtown School’s history. She successfully lobbied the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for a historical marker at the site.

Palmer said the school is privately owned and she is working with the owner, whom she did not name, to preserve the building.

Beau Dickenson, Rockingham County Public Schools’ coordinator of history and social science education, said Thursday’s event helped students learn about “diverse local history.”

“We have national stories in textbooks. The one thing that teachers work to do is make them come alive and seem relevant,” Dickenson said. “Not everybody has the opportunity to do that with their local community.”

‘Encouraging Environment’
While providing an arena for education, the schools were far from perfect. Nizer said that when she went to the school, one room was for first through third grades and the other was for fourth through seventh grades.

Some had no running water or restrooms, while others were cramped. Despite their shortcomings, Deutsch said, the students appreciated them.

“The people who went to the schools had very, very fond recollections of them,” she said. “It was very, very warm, nurturing and encouraging environment.”

Deutsch said the schools helped develop, among other things, doctors, athletes and community leaders.

“It’s an incredible legacy,” she said. “There’s generations of people who used their education to turn around and do something to promote their community and make life better for all of us, really.”

Nizer said the Newtown School made an impact on everyone who passed through its doors.

“The school produced people who were doing great things,” she said. “A lot of us got the foundation that made us who we are today.”

Nizer plans to reach out to Newtown School alumni to reconnect with the building.

“I’d love to see it restored back to the school,” she said.

Deutsch said the schools are part of shared history.

“This is not black history to study in February. This is not Jewish history to study at some particular time,” she said. “This is American history. This is all of our history, and you’re so lucky to live in a place that has a particular connection to that history.”

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