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RCC celebrates African-American history

Special events organized by Rappahannock Community College’s Student Support Services program during the month of February have marked its observance as African-American History Month. These included “soul food” luncheons at each campus, as well as presentations from well-known Essex County poet and artist Dorothy Alves Holmes, and architect Steven Reiss, who spoke about the Rosenwald Rural School Building Program.

Mrs. Holmes gave an account of the Underground Railroad, with special reference to the quilts that were often hung on clotheslines as signals to fleeing slaves. Various patchwork patterns had code meanings that would tell them where to go next, and where it was safe to stop. Mrs. Holmes has reproduced a number of these patterns in paintings, which appear on one of her lines of greeting cards. Though she took up painting only at the age of 73, her success in the world of art is attested by the blue ribbons she has won at the Virginia State Fair.

“Just keep doing it,” she told a student who was found to be drawing while listening to her talk, and advised her to follow her dreams and goals wherever they take her. “Never give up! ‘Can’t’ is a coward that never tries.” She concluded her presentation with a tribute to Martin Luther King, illustrated by a poem she read aloud from one of her several published volumes.

Steven Reiss spoke jointly with RCC president Dr. Elizabeth Crowther about the efforts of the Julius Rosenwald School Foundation of Northumberland County to preserve the historic Julius Rosenwald High School near Reedville, which served the educational needs of the African-American community from 1917 to 1958. Mr. Reiss gave the history of the school building program, which originated in 1912 as a partnership between Booker T. Washington and Sears Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald. Universal public education had been instituted in 1869, but segregation was still the rule. Though former slaves knew that education and literacy were the path to a better life, blacks-only schools lacked the funding to provide them with the books and teaching that they needed.

Mr. Rosenwald, as a Jew, was familiar with race and cultural prejudice, and had read and admired Washington’s books. In addition to direct donations that paid for building six schools in Alabama and one hundred in other southern states, he established the Rosenwald Fund, which supplied matching funds to build over 5000 more schools, shops, and teachers’ homes. By requiring communities to raise half the cost of a school building, he fostered cooperation between blacks and whites. The buildings, put together within six months from kits similar to the house kits sold by Sears, and featuring large banks of windows to take advantage of natural light, were so well designed that white schools soon began imitating them.

The Reedville school, first known as Northumberland County Training School and renamed in honor of Rosenwald in 1932, is one of the best preserved of the 22 examples built in the Northern Neck. Its condition makes it an excellent candidate for restoration, and the Rosenwald School Foundation’s vision is to continue Rosenwald’s legacy by making this important period of Virginia history accessible to the public. The foundation proposes to do this by creating a public park, and converting the building itself to a multi-use facility. Dr. Crowther, as a Northumberland native, is deeply committed to the project, and has pledged RCC’s help as an educational resource.

Among those attending the presentation were several alumni of the Julius Rosenwald High School, now board members of the Foundation. Other alumni have gone on to join the workforce in the professions of doctors, lawyers, airplane pilots, dancers, artists, and many others. Reiss mentioned that among the descendants of students of other Rosenwald schools are such distinguished Americans as Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, and Julian Bond.

 

Picture: Left to right: local poet and artist Dorothy Holmes, and architect Steven Reiss, spoke at RCC on aspects of African-American history.

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