New Hope Rosenwald School’s centennial journey

Published 4:59 pm Wednesday, January 23, 2019

FREDONIA — Located off County Road 267 in the Fredonia community, the New Hope Rosenwald School has reached its centennial year in 2019. In the early 1930s, there were close to 5,000 of these schools over 15 Southeastern states. Relatively few of them are still standing. New Hope is the only one of 20 Rosenwald schools built in Chambers County that still stands. It’s one of an estimated 60 such schools in the U.S. that are listed on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places.

Unquestionably it’s a local, state and national treasure. It’s now undergoing a major renovation with the goal of having it open to the public before the end of the year.

“We want to restore it as much as we can to its original appearance,” New Hope Foundation board member George Barrow said. “Everything about this building is historically significant. It was built on pillars to direct an air flow underneath it. This will make it cooler in the summer and will keep out moisture. There’s very little condensation; everything is dry.”

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The school was open from 1919 to 1958. When it closed, an elderly couple lived there and modified the structure, taking out some of the large windows Rosenwald schools are noted for.

Barrow is hard at work to have identical windows put back in the building.

“When it was built, there were 19 windows in the building,” he said. “I’ve been working on the replacement windows. It can take 25 to 30 hours per window to get it right.”

A stickler for details, Barrow has been looking high and low for 1919-era glass.

“Glass that was made back then looked different,” he said. “It was called float glass. You can see imperfections it in, and that’s what made it special. It was part of the character of the building. I’m trying to get as much of it as I can. I may have to purchase 150 pieces. Rosenwald schools were famous for their tall windows. They let in lots of light and could be opened for ventilation.”

Glass made 100 years ago was thinner and lighter than glass of more recent times. Heavier glass tends to upset the counter balance system that was used to open and close the windows with little effort.

“Everything was totally balanced,” Barrow said. “There are heavyweight systems on each side. A rope and a pulley helped you open and close them. I’ve found some windows in salvage but getting them just right is almost impossible. I have learned how to make windows from scratch. I’ve had to.”

He’s done lots of research on Rosenwald schools and has made some interesting discoveries. The school was built according to Plan No. 11 designed by Robert Robinson Taylor (1868-1942), the first African-American admitted to MIT and the first accredited African-American architect in U.S. history. He’s the great grandfather of Valerie Jarrett, who served from 2009 to 2017 as the assistant to the president for public engagement and intergovernmental affairs for President Barack Obama.

After graduation, Taylor was recruited to Tuskegee by Booker T. Washington. He is credited with designing many of the main buildings on the Tuskegee campus, including the world-famous chapel. He also designed many of the Rosenwald schools. The tall windows, brick pillars and buildings that faced east were signatures of his work.

New Hope’s tall windows faced east and west to maximize daylight and warmth during the winter months. A large potbellied stove burned both wood and coal. The school did not have indoor bathrooms, running water or an air-conditioning system. An outside well provided drinking water and the outdoor bathrooms, or privies, were behind the school.

The well and the privies are still there but need some work to get them back to their former condition.

The restoration effort has benefitted from grants from the Alabama Historical Commission and the Coosa Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council.

“We’ve had some fundraisers, too,” Barrow said. “We appreciate all the help we have gotten.”

Barrow said that there are three main goals to the project: (1) to have the front of the building looking like it was when it was built in 1919, (2) getting the windows completely restored and installed, and (3) replacing some rotten wood that’s in the building and stopping some leaking that has taken place around the chimney.

Having the 1919 appearance on the front side is a matter of building a new front porch and putting in some of the tall windows on the right side. That will be taken care of soon. Barrow expects all 19 windows to be put back in the building this year. Dr. Mac Holderfield made an important contribution.

“He gave us some antique doors,” Barrow said. “We’ll put them on the front of the building.”

“We want to have it far enough along where groups of people can visit around the time we have the Fredonia Heritage Festival,” Barrow said. “This is a really special year for the Fredonia community. The Community Clubhouse, where we have the festival, is having its centennial this year, too, and the state is having its bicentennial celebration.”

The sponsoring organization for the restoration is the New Hope Foundation. It’s a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and Barrow is its president. The foundation was created by the late John Hoggs, a former New Hope student who served as a West Point City Council member. The late Oscar Crawley, the former mayor of Lanett, was a board member. His mother attended New Hope School. Former West Point resident Susie Griggs, who now lives in Atlanta, is a current board member. Former Lanett and Troup High basketball coach Thermond Billingslea is also on the board along with Nicholas Fannings, Lanny Davis and Gene Thornton.

Barrow has a family connection to New Hope School. His great aunt, Viola Zachry Trammell, taught there.

The Rosenwald school program began in 1912 as a collaborative effort between Tuskegee Institute President Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, president of the Sears, Roebuck and Company, to provide educational opportunities for African-American children in the rural south.

“The education of black children in the rural South was deplorable in the early 1900s,” Barrow said. “It was done in churches, people’s homes and sometimes in barns. The Rosenwald program really helped. Many of these schools were built near churches. People walked a lot back then. Families would walk to their church on Sundays, and the children would walk to the school on the week days. At first, New Hope was a one-teacher school with two separate classrooms and a work room. The teacher had lots of responsibility. She would teach one group and have another group doing homework.”

Barrow attended school in Five Points. One of the schools he attended in his youth got its start as a Rosenwald School. He graduated from Phillips High in Five Points in 1967. He went on to attend Tennessee State University in Nashville, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He then moved to the Detroit area to work as an engineer in the automotive industry. While there, he earned a master’s in engineering from the University of Michigan. He retired in 2008 and moved back home to Chambers County, where he has been very active in the local community.

“I love doing home design stuff,” he said.

He said that the wood in the New Hope School is old-growth pine.

“The beams are huge,” he said. “The studs in the walls and four inches by four inches. They don’t make them like that anymore. You won’t find them in Home Depot or Lowe’s. You’ll have to have it specially cut at a sawmill. The boards are one by four tongue and groove planks. Those are hard to find now. They have to be specially made, but I’d rather have the historic wood that’s in good condition.”

Barrow said he’s looking forward to the final phase of restoration. That’s when he and the other volunteers will be painting the building.

“It’s an all-volunteer effort,” he said. “You have to have the mindset that you’re going to finish it. All the money that’s been raised will be going to a good cause.”

Some of the work will be done by contractors.

“We want to have a lot done by September,” he said. “We’d like to have some kind of event there the week before Fredonia Heritage Day.”