Board restores historic school

Subhead

A century ago, Camden County had three Rosenwald schools. Today, there’s just one, the big red school house in the Kinlaw community. The one that Black families raised $909 to build. More contributions added $950, then philanthropist Julius Rosenwald chipped in the last $1,000. The Kinlaw...

Image
  • .
    .
Body

A century ago, Camden County had three Rosenwald schools. Today, there’s just one, the big red school house in the Kinlaw community. The one that Black families raised $909 to build. More contributions added $950, then philanthropist Julius Rosenwald chipped in the last $1,000.

The Kinlaw Rosenwald School cost $2,859 to design and build — roughly $40,000 in today’s dollars — and first welcomed students in 1921. Nearly 100 years later, that same community spirit is re-energizing a nonprofit board to restore the building on Kinlaw Road and return it to service as a community center.

“Just the fact that there was a small community there that wanted something more for their children and worked together,” board president Deborah Milstead said. “… It’s been a work of love. It has been. We’ve got a lot of interest, community interest.”

Backed by Booker T. Washington and Rosenwald, more than 5,300 state-of-the-art schools were built across the South to educate Black students. 

“The effort has been called the most important initiative to advance Black education in the early 20th century,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Attending a Rosenwald School put a student at the vanguard of education for southern African-American children. The architecture of the school was a tangible statement of the equality of all children, and their programming made them a focal point of community identity and aspirations.”

In Camden, there were Rosenwald schools in Kinlaw, St. Marys and the north end, according to Milstead. The three-room Kinlaw school replaced a one-room school the Black community had built in 1896 on an acre of land, according to South Georgia Normal and Industrial Inc. — the nonprofit organization led by Milstead.

Rosenwald schools were known for the big windows and usually painted muted, neutral colors that would weather well in the sun, Milstead said. The Kinlaw school has always been red — and restoration efforts include matching that hue as the siding is repaired.

“This community, which I thought was just amazing, painted it red,” Milstead said. “That was pretty bold to paint that school red in that community.”

After integration, many Rosenwald schools — including the other two here — were lost to progress. Kinlaw remained, holding up through tropical storms, humid heat and wind. Some people gathered at the school for family reunions and other events through the years.

The board has seen a need for that sort of space again, especially as the world has changed during the pandemic, Milstead said. While there are community spaces available throughout Camden, one more place to gather and learn would be nice and could have been offered to students learning online. The restored school will be a big, clean, safe space with room to gather outside too, according to Milstead.

“Our vision is to be able to offer some of those things to the community, especially when it comes to our kids, making sure that there’s a place they can go to for tutoring (and such),” she said.

That day is coming but there are still many days of restoration ahead. The new board is leading the charge, working with donations from people and businesses and waiting to hear about grants. They’re focusing on the windows and siding now, carefully recreating the school as it was built in the 1920s.

The board also applied to get the school on the National Register of Historic Places. They found out in December that the building was eligible to be included for education and architecture, Milstead said.

“That sort of forces us to keep moving, so that it has its national place in history,” she said. 

A board has always overseen the school but members fell away through the decades, Milstead said. The new board came together as old friends, neighbors and descendants of Rosenwald students talked about what would become of the school. The new group is in its second year and hopes to train the next generation to take over but for now, it’s full steam ahead.

“We’re just so proud that we have taken on the effort, not just to restore an old building, but to save a part of Georgia’s history that’s still standing and still worthy of mentioning,” Milstead said. “I think it’s just extremely important that we continue to look at what we’ve done and how far we’ve come. I think that when you have a building like that and you have a group that’s wiling to support and move forward an effort like this, it helps the whole community. It helps the whole community, and it’s something that we want to be able to give to the community.”

The nonprofit is sharing its mission at kinlawrosenwald.wixsite.com/school and donations can be made through the website. South Georgia Normal and Industrial Inc. is a registered 501c(3).