Around South County: Galesville group renovating historic Rosenwald School

By MITCHELLE STEPHENSON, For the Capital
Published 11/26/09

In the late 1800s, the then-president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. decided to use his vast wealth to help the less fortunate. Much of his philanthropy affected hundreds of thousands of African-American children throughout the South, including those right here in south county.

Julius Rosenwald was a self-made man whose ideas, intellect and drive led him to become president of the Sears department store chain.

Along his path to success he met important businessmen, educators and activists, including Paul Sachs, Rabbi Emil Hirsch and Booker T. Washington.

Rosenwald was so taken by Washington’s book, “Up From Slavery,” that he eventually invested several million dollars of his personal wealth in a foundation dedicated to improving the lives of African Americans in the rural South through education.

The Julius Rosenwald Fund was established in 1917, and by the end of the program in 1932, was responsible for the construction of nearly 5,000 schools, which educated 650,000 African-American children in 15 states.

In Anne Arundel County, the fund built 23 Rosenwald Schools. The schools all used the same architectural plan developed by architects at Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.

The buildings had wide windows facing east and west to minimize the need for electric lighting, open space for instructional needs as well as progressive aesthetics, which were created to foster positive, orderly, healthy environments for the students.

The south county schools included Churchton, Friend-ship, Galesville, Lothian One, Lothian Two, Mayo and Shady Side. The Shady Side school was renovated and is now the Lula G. Scott Community Center.

The Galesville Rosenwald School, which later became the segregated Galesville Elementary School, is about to be renovated due to the efforts of some dedicated former students.

Leading the charge is Gertrude Makell, who was a student at the Galesville school from first through fourth grade. When the school closed in 1958, she was transferred to the Ralph Bunch School, and then later to Lothian Elementary. She then attended an integrated high school, Southern High School in Lothian.

After the Galesville school was closed in 1958, local community members got together and purchased the two-acre site and building for $1,000 from the county. For years it was used as a community center, but in the 1970s, the facility fell into disrepair.

In 2003, a group of former students and their family and friends, including Makell, got together with the intent of preserving the structure, its history and heritage. They formed the Galesville Community Center Organization.

Among the committee members, several had attended the Galesville Rosenwald School, including Makell, Betty Turner, Pauline Watkins-Proctor, Daniel Easton, Rever Sellman, Dorothea McCullers and Isabella Washington. Other committee members did not attend the school but have been instrumental in helping to get the project off the ground. Those include the Rev. R. Aquilla Fordham, Shirley Perry, James Proctor, Gloristine Neal-Nick and the Rev. Dorothy Fordham.

“We’ve been working on it for about six years,” Makell said. They had to apply for nonprofit status, plus get funding to stabilize and rehabilitate the structure.

They’ve received grants from the state, county and local community development resources.

The renovation will cost about $400,000. They hired local architect Michael Dowling, who worked on the renovation of the Marley Neck Rosenwald School, which is also being used as a community center.

“One of my areas of practice is historic restoration and preservation,” Michael said. “Galesville has a lot that was intact. In (Marley Neck), there was ghosting where original parts were, but in Galesville a lot of the original detail – the wainscoting and the windows, are intact. We are very lucky to find those kinds of little details to match,” he said.

They also have private funding set aside so that when the building is completed, they will be able to start using it right away.

The group has been working with local churches and community organizations, like the Galesville Heritage Society, to provide services for children while the building is undergoing its renovation.

“We worked with the Alex Haley Foundation, doing a couple of camps for the kids,” Makell said. “The kids started working on a book that we hope to publish, about black history in Galesville,” she said.

The project is scheduled to be completed in April of 2010, when they’ll have a big ribbon cutting ceremony.