Though currently in a state of extreme disrepair, this former Rosenwald school in St. George is on track to be restored. The school opened for the 1925-1926 school year in rural Dorchester County with funds provided by both local residents and Chicago businessman Julius Rosenwald. Known as the St. George Colored School, it and operated for nearly 30 years.
During the time of racial segregation, few schools existed for rural African-American children. Booker T. Washington worked with Rosenwald, then-president of Sears and Roebuck, to create a program that would organize schools in rural areas for black students. While the local communities were to contribute the majority of the funds and sweat equity towards construction, Rosenwald would donate a portion of the expenses. According to Fisk University’s Rosenwald Database, the St. George Rosenwald school was built with $2,000 raised by the black community, $1,500 contributed by Rosenwald, and the remaining $4,800 donated by white residents of the town. (This is slightly unusual – often the black community raised the majority of the funds.) More than 5,000 Rosenwald buildings were constructed between 1919 and 1932, and 500 were built in South Carolina. This school is one of two built in Dorchester County.*
While many of the Rosenwald schools were built as one-room or two-room schoolhouses, the St. George school was larger with six rooms. Still, the school could not adequately house all of the area’s black students, necessitating the use of other buildings to serve as classrooms, such as nearby Good Hope Baptist Church. The school was also used for community functions outside of school hours. Other buildings erected on the campus included a bathroom facility (the concrete shell of which still stands), a workshop for boys (no longer extant), and a canteen (still present). A playground and basketball court once graced the property, and a swimming pool was added by the community after the school closed. These facilities helped make the campus a place where black families in St. George could gather for recreation and socializing.
As equalization schools were built across the state in the early 1950s in an attempt to stave off integration, many Rosenwald schools closed. Such was the case with the St. George Colored School. When Williams Memorial School was built in 1954 to house the black students of St. George, the Rosenwald school saw its last graduating class. At the time, Williams Memorial served students through 12th grade, leaving other local buildings, including Good Hope Baptist Church, to continue housing the overflow as there were more pupils than its capacity allowed. Today Williams Memorial functions solely as an elementary school. The former Rosenwald school was used as the site of a Head Start program for a short time but has been unoccupied for decades. The property changed hands over the decades and slowly became dilapidated due to neglect. In March 2015 it came under the ownership of the Town of St. George. The town is currently raising funds to restore the schoolhouse as a museum.
Update: On August 22, 2016, a grant was awarded for the building’s restoration. State Senator John Mathews and State Representative Patsy Knight assisted in this effort. The funds will supplement an additional $1 million that has already been raised. The previous funding was allocated by a $100,000 grant from the SC National Heritage Corridor, a $75,000 grant from the the Dorchester County Conservation and Preservation Fund, a $25,000 grant from the SC Department of Archives and History, and a $5000 grant from the Alice Rosenwald Flex Fund administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is expected that the restoration could cost up to $2 million.
Edith Oldham, who lived near the school and attended classes there from age four, now serves as the secretary of the Rosenwald Corporation’s board of directors. The corporation was established by the Town of St. George in order to lead the restoration.
In an interview with a local television station in 2016, Oldham said, “This was the heart of the community always, but once it closed it became a social setting because in the schools at that time you weren’t allowed to have dances, so when the young people wanted to have affairs, they would have it here.”
Ralph James, another alumnus of the school, leads both the Rosenwald Corporation and the school’s alumni association. The later group has 200 members and meets monthly in order to plan for the future and share memories of the past.
James notes that the building stood at the heart of the black business community and provided a place to meet during the Civil Rights Era. At that time, he explains, it was called “Uptown St. George” or “Little Harlem.”
* Little is known about the other Dorchester County Rosenwald School. According to the Summerville Journal-Scene, which published an excellent article on the St. George Colored School, it seems to have been called the County Training School at Summerville and may have been located near Mr. K’s Piggly Wiggly on Cedar Street.