Attending to history

Museum shines light on historic segregated schools

Kathe Hambrick-Jackson has a passion for old country schools where black children were educated in the segregated South.

Hambrick-Jackson, founder and director of the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville, began researching rural black schools about 1996, when she found an abandoned school building on the east bank of the River Road in the community of Romeville near Convent.

“I was intrigued by this big old wooden school room and started to look for other schools in the parish,” she said.

As others learned of her interest in the old schools, people from all over the area began donating school memorabilia they had saved or gotten from family members.

On May 16, the museum received a treasure trove of memorabilia from the old Lemannville School from Darlene and Willie Lamendola, of Gonzales.

“They called me and said that in the 1980s, Willie had torn down an old black school in Lemannville,” Hambrick-Jackson said.

Recently the Lamendolas came across several boxes of photographs they had been storing in an old shed. The boxes contain lesson books, photos, class work, news clips and a number of crocheted items.

“They said we need to give these to the African American Museum because they are photos of black children,” Hambrick-Jackson said.

Lemannville, which takes its name from the Lemann family of Donaldsonville, is located near the foot of the Sunshine Bridge about five miles from Donaldsonville. Local historians say the community was settled by freed black families after the Civil War.

“It was an all-black community,” said the Rev. Felton C. Ceasar, who grew up in Lemannville. “There was one white family, who had a grocery store.”

According to Henrietta Robinson Porter, the Lemannville School opened about 1925. Porter is the niece of Birdie Robinson Brittain, who was the founder of the school and the head teacher. Brittain, who died at 93 in 1989, attended Leland College.

On the top of the pile of items in the collection was a picture of Booker T. Washington, who “came up with the idea of building schools in rural areas,” Hambrick-Jackson said. “This man was so important to teachers and principals because he believed that blacks in rural communities needed to get an education.”

“Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois are people we talked about all the time,” said Juanita M. Dandridge, who taught for many years in Ascension Parish.

Among the items in the collection are several vocational guides.

“Trade was a big issue,” Hambrick-Jackson said. “Some who couldn’t go to college went into trades.”

One of the most interesting items is a copy of a letter written by Vernon Joshua in 1949 to the U.S. Forest Service requesting information on becoming a forest ranger. Two brochures he received are also among the items.

“I think that the lesson was that students were being taught to think about their futures,” said Beryl Hunter, guest curator of the Lemannville School collection. “In 1949, the children were taught to think about the possibility of a different kind of career with agriculture in a different kind of way, to explore other types of occupations for someone looking at the land or land use but with a different occupation other than farming.”

Brittain was an expert at crocheting and knitting and had a loom on which she made quilts, said her nephew McDonough Robinson. A number of hand-crocheted hats, a doll dressed in a hand-crocheted dress and prize ribbons from the Negro State Fair are part of the collection donated by the Lamendolas.

David Joshua, Vernon Joshua’s brother, recalls that Brittain was not the only teacher. Misses Scott, Daniels and Fletcher are teachers that came to mind.

“As well as I can remember, first, second and third grades were together. Fourth and fifth were together and sixth and seventh,” he said.

He was in the seventh grade when the Lemannville School closed about 1953.

“What I can remember is that we were promoted to the seventh grade,” he said, “but we went to the eighth grade at Lowery. That was the high school in Donaldsonville, Lowery Training School.”

Hambrick-Jackson has dedicated much of her work with old rural schools to Rosenwald rural school buildings, a subject that has gained interest through the work of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Rosenwald rural school building program was an endeavor by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck & Co., to improve the quality of education for black children in the rural South in the early 20th century. Rosenwald, son of German-Jewish immigrants, donated money to the Tuskegee Institute and, in 1912, at the request of Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee’s president, gave permission for part of the money to be used for the construction of six small schools in rural Alabama. In 1917, Rosenwald set up the Julius Rosenwald Fund for a school building program.

According to research by the National Trust, by 1928, one in every five rural schools for black students in the South was a Rosenwald school, and these schools educated one-third of the region’s rural black children. By the time the program ended in 1932, it had funded 4,977 new schools, 217 teachers’ homes and 163 shop buildings, constructed at a total cost of $28,408,520 and serving 663,615 students in 883 counties of 15 states. Some 400 of the schools were in Louisiana.

On Saturday, the River Road African American Museum will celebrate Washington and Rosenwald’s “Shared Vision for Education” at an open house at the old wooden school from Romeville, originally the Central School or Central Agricultural School, which was donated to the museum in 1996 and moved from St. James Parish to Williams Street in Donaldsonville in 2001. It turns out that the museum’s Williams Street building is a Rosenwald school, which Hambrick-Jackson is working hard to restore.

“When complete, the building will become the proud centerpiece of the museum’s new campus,” she said. “The celebration offers the community and our benefactors the first formal tour of the school’s restored exterior and partially restored interior.”

Booker T. Washington’s great-granddaughter, Robin Washington Banks, will be a special guest at the ceremonies.

Hambrick-Jackson has learned a lot about Rosenwald schools since she first encountered the old school in Romeville in 1996.

“In 2001, someone told me about an initiative with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to document and help save old school buildings for black children,” Hambrick-Jackson said. “The buildings that the trust decided to put on their list of most endangered schools are the Rosenwald schools. Here I am doing research on old black schools not knowing anything about Rosenwald schools when I found my building.”