Sometimes history looks like a one-story clapboard schoolhouse badly in need of a hammer and paintbrush.
In this case, history hangs in the balance at the 90-year-old Panther Branch Rosenwald School, even with the cachet of its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. A surviving link to Booker T. Washington’s vision of educating the descendants of American slaves, this building is hardly some weekend fixer-upper.
The restoration efforts here are expected to cost more than a quarter-million dollars, and it will likely take years for the tiny Juniper Level community in Garner to come up with the funds.
The story of this landmark – and others like it throughout the South – was recounted last Sunday in the Juniper Level Missionary Baptist Church. The oldest members there attended the Panther Branch Rosenwald School as children, and its younger leaders are trying to preserve the building for posterity.
“The Rosenwald schools were the beginning of a renaissance in black education across the South,” U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield said. “But this is something I don’t understand – we were not really taught this story.”
Butterfield, who hails from Wilson, was invited to Sunday’s service by organizers raising awareness about their decade-long effort to rebuild the aging schoolhouse as a community center. The task is so costly because as a national landmark, the schoolhouse must be meticulously restored to state and federal specifications.
“We have to replicate on the exterior exactly the way it was in 1926,” said Barbara Perry, a church member leading the restoration efforts. She said its 24 windows were reconstructed at a cost exceeding $2,000 per window, and the next phase will require lifting the structure off its foundation and stabilizing it.
The Panther Branch Rosenwald School, which closed down in 1956, is one among dozens of such humble relics of a Jim Crow South that were long neglected and nearly forgotten. In recent years these dilapidated structures are being resurrected through books, conferences, documentaries and local restoration efforts.
More than a century ago, Washington persuaded retail magnate Julius Rosenwald, then president of the Sears, Roebuck & Co., to finance rural African American schoolhouses throughout the South. The collaboration resulted in more than 5,000 schools, teachers’ homes and shop buildings in 15 states.
North Carolina was home to 787 Rosenwald schools and 26 homes and shops, more than any other Southern state. Out of two dozen built in Wake County, only a handful survive. Rosenwald’s foundation, drained by the Great Depression, stopped funding the schools in 1932. The schools typically displayed portraits of Booker T. Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Julius Rosenwald, a son of Jewish immigrants who never finished high school.
The children who attended this Rosenwald school recall walking several miles along rural roads and cutting through the woods, and a disciplinarian culture that rewarded wayward behavior with a teacher’s palm to the student’s posterior.
“We had very few disciplinary problems,” said Ella Perry, 86, a retired school teacher who was one of seven siblings in her family who attended the school. She said the emphasis was on the so-called Three R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic – plus crocheting and knitting for the girls on Fridays, and 4-H Club activities for the boys.
“We were very proud it it,” said alumnus John Penix, 93. “We thought we had something.”
Penix, a retired postmaster, is a product of Rosenwald who attended between 1927 and 1937. One of 10 siblings who attended the school, he still remembers the spankings, though exactly what he did to merit the punishment remains murky.