Schoolhouse restoration proposed

Published 9:56 am Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A presentation outlining the restoration of a one-room schoolhouse is set to be given during the Lunenburg County Board of Supervisors meeting Thursday, which starts 6 p.m. at the Lunenburg County Courthouse, 11435 Courthouse Road.

The presentation will be given by Stephen Israel with the Lunenburg County Historical Society (LCHS) and Frances Wynn, of Mount Vernon, New York, whose family lives in Lunenburg and whose grandfather, Peter B. Winn, founded the school.

Wynn and Israel will present the Oak Grove School Project, an initiative to restore a one room schoolhouse built more than 100 years ago, which taught African-American students in the Town of Kenbridge.

Frances is one of three surviving students who attended Oak Grove School in the late 1930s and 1940s.

The presentation proposes locating the schoolhouse on the courthouse square. The location, according to the presentation, would not cost the county and shares a similar style to the law offices that exist on the property. The schoolhouse dimensions are 16 feet, 3 inches by 22 feet, 8 inches.

The LCHS would be in charge of long-term maintenance, and Frances and Israel would provide updates to the county.

The organization would apply for grant funding, and the Wynn family would provide matching funds.

The benefits to the county, according to the presentation, would be the preservation of the African-American historic school and would be a resource during Black History Month.

Frances is a lifelong educator with 45 years of experience in Virginia and New York, and has established a number of programs in Mount Vernon to address the needs of youth, including establishing the only satellite program to reach Mount Vernon students from Westchester Community College. When she was a prekindergarten director in the area, she increased enrollment for the program from 41 to 281 students, increasing the statewide grant afforded to the city by six times.

Oak Grove School, according to a summary by Frances and Karen Wynn, was built by black farmers and ministers in 1915. The school was built at the original site of Oak Grove Baptist Church.

At that time, there was no conveniently accessible education facilities for black children in the area.

“To rectify the situation and to provide opportunities for the expanding population, residents banded together to build a school,” the summary cited.

The one-room schoolhouse taught grades 1-7 who walked daily to school within a 7-mile radius. All seven grades were taught by one teacher.

“It is believed that during the course of its working existence, from 1915-1953, over 1,140 students were educated at the school,” the summary cited.

The Oak Grove School project was established by Wynn and Karen Wynn in 2015.

The schoolhouse remains standing at the Oak Grove Baptist Church property, though it’s currently fallen into disrepair.

“The roof has been weakened by years of neglect, and a tree fell on the structure, causing considerable damage,” the summary cited. “The tree has since been removed, but nature and human interactions have taken its toll.”

In the late 1960s, vandals entered the school and removed the pot-bellied stove used to heat the schoolhouse, as well as lecterns, desks and benches.

“The walls, doors and windows of the structure remain solid, and have been deemed ‘restorable’ by various contractors,” the summary cited.

The restoration of schoolhouses like Oak Grove School have gained popularity over the past few years, particularly schoolhouses located in the South.

“According to a study presented by National Public Radio, there are fewer than 400 one room school houses still in existence in the United States,” the summary cited. “In the early 1900s, Rosenwald schools, established by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, the CEO of Sears Roebuck and Co. and the Tuskegee Institute, under Booker T. Washington, were popular in the southern states.” It’s estimated that more than 5,000 schools were built for African-American children in the South.

Oak Grove School is not a Rosenwald School, it was built in the same era and believed to have been based on a similar floor plan.

“The founders of the school simply wanted their children to have the same opportunities for education as white children in the area,” the summary cited.

The summary cited that Frances wants to continue her grandfather’s legacy and allow future generations the chance to appreciate the historical significance of one room schoolhouses in the black community.