By Amanda Barry, CHP Graduate Research Assistant
Graduate students, be they M.A.s or Ph.D.s, often find themselves experiencing a full range of emotions throughout their studies. There’s the frustration when tackling projects, and the elation when they’re finally complete. This semester, I found myself filled with an uncharacteristic emotion: hate. Yes, I hated my thesis topic. I had chosen to focus on the progressive efforts that historic plantation sites were taking to interpret slavery within the landscape. It was a topic I was familiar with, and it was safe. It lacked passion and purpose, however, and I quickly found myself dreading the impending research necessary to complete a lengthy paper. So, in what I have come to call a “preservation epiphany,” I changed my thesis topic with one semester of my studies remaining. Why such a daring move? As has happened to many students at the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP), I was inspired by a community.
Over the CHP’s thirty years, students and staff have worked with many historic southern schools: schools big and small, rural and urban, black and white. The history of education in the United States often falls along the color line, especially in the South where state laws often prohibited integrated schools. Segregation is an uncomfortable history to grapple with, but one that must be tackled in order to appropriately contextualize a given school.
African American schools built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries represent a storied history of education in the United States. African American communities viewed education as a path to equal citizenship. Access to an education, denied for so long, became a precious commodity. After the Civil War, African American children and adults alike flocked to schools in droves to learn to read, write, learn, study, and receive industrial training. The physical structure and curriculum of these schools were often influenced by outside forces, including the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Julius Rosenwald Fund, and white school board members intent on keeping African Americans in their place. Indeed, the effects of Plessy v. Ferguson can be seen in the physical construction of African American schools across the South during the period of “separate but equal.”
In the face of racial oppression and adversity, African American communities remained resilient. Their strength can be felt today in the lives and work of “desegregation-era” community members in Gibson County, Tennessee, many of whom lived through the transition that took place after Brown v. Board of Education declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional. Specifically, recent CHP work has brought us to Sitka School, a rural Rosenwald school situated eight miles from Polk-Clark School (the site of another CHP partnership) in Milan, Tennessee. Engaging with the community is essential for this type of preservation work.
Many of these preservation projects have grown out of a sense of nostalgia that African American communities have for their schools built under segregation. The influence of desegregation on these communities and schools was monumental, ranging from the loss of community fabric and identity to closure and abandonment. Despite the problems of underfunding and overcrowding, schools like Sitka were a testament to self-reliance and perseverance. There was a collective energy invested in achieving a common goal.
Preservation of segregation-era African American schools helps communities reverse the sense of loss of their educational heritage. It allows for a new platform to highlight African American leadership, culture, and traditions embodied in these institutions. The passion of Gibson County community members for preservation and re-use of their schools inspired my change of course. I’m eager to learn from these community members as I research community-based preservation of segregation-era African American schools for my “preservation epiphany” Master’s thesis.