As a first grader in 1954, Ralph James was one of the last students to attend the St. George Colored School in upper Dorchester County. Six decades later, he has returned to lead a re-opening of the school as a children’s museum to educate the next generation about the town’s Black business district during the period of racial segregation.
“This history speaks volumes to what our people did with so little then,” said James, chairman of the seven-member St. George Rosenwald School board of directors. After the community raised $4 million in grants and contributions to restore the old school, the renovated St. George Rosenwald School museum is expected to open early next year, he said.
Nearly a century ago during segregation, the St. George Colored School was one of 414 “Rosenwald schools” built in South Carolina to educate Black children in rural communities. It was one of two schools in Dorchester County in a national network of more than 5,000 Rosenwald schools inspired by educator Booker T. Washington and Sears and Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald. At least 14 Rosenwald schools were built in Charleston County in the 1920s stretching from Wadmalaw Island to Lincolnville to McClellanville, according to records from the S.C. Department of Archives and History.
This month, James and members of the nonprofit organization plan to meet with the National Park Service with hopes the renovated school could join a multi-state national park celebrating Rosenwald’s legacy. He added a meeting is also planned this month with the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina in Charleston to get advice on how to recognize Rosenwald, the son of German Jewish immigrants born in Illinois in 1862.
The Rosenwald school in St. George opened in 1925. It closed in 1954 as South Carolina built new schools for black children to stall school integration. In that year, James and his schoolmates entered a new Williams Memorial High School in St. George, named for the Rev. S.D. Williams, a former principal at the St. George Colored School. Today, Williams Memorial is a middle school.
History hiding in vacant lots
Seated on folding chairs in a restored classroom in the renovated building, James and Linwood Ling reminisced about the old school.
Ling, owner of the Ling Funeral Home in St. George, was 5 years old when his parents, both educators, enrolled their only child in the school. After a summer session, he graduated early in 1960 at age 16 from the new Williams Memorial High School. He later studied science and chemistry at Savannah State College.
Ling said he feared after the St. George Colored School closed, the memory of it dimmed. He said he hoped the renovated school with a new children’s museum “will be cherished by many, many people who attended school here and people who didn’t attend will learn many things they didn’t have no idea that took place here. Some of the people who graduated from here were inspired by the people who taught here.”
Vacant lots near the old Rosenwald school on Ann Street hold the remnants of the town’s once thriving Black business district that included a movie theater, juke joint, a soda shop, barber shop, grocery store, laundromat and two candy stores in a part of town known as Little Harlem.
Under agreements with landowners, the museum will lease the lots and then develop them to interpret the history of the businesses, said James, a retired municipal court judge in St. George, Ridgeville and Vance.
Inside the museum, James envisions replicas of the businesses to give children a hands-on history lesson. The museum has caught the attention of Nichole Myles, executive director of the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, in Charleston. She’s helping to design museum exhibits.
“Children learn so much about the world around them, and about how they fit into it, through exploration and play,” she said. “A children’s museum experience at the Rosenwald school in St. George is a thoughtful and joyful way to tell an important story to our youngest citizens, and I look forward to seeing it grow and develop.”
Outside the museum, three exhibits will tell other nearly forgotten stories. James wants to install a railroad caboose and dining car to tell the 100-year history of Black men who served as Pullman porters on the nation’s rail lines. Another display will emphasize how electricity changed rural households. On a three-acre lot adjacent to the campus, plans also call for an amphitheater and a replica of a Black-owned grocery store operated by the local Pinckney family.
When the school, closed programs didn’t stop
James and his older sister, Bobbie Jean James, transferred in 1954 to the new Williams Memorial High School. She was in the third grade. Today, she’s a retired Hampton County teacher. Their parents operated a grocery store and their father rented houses to out-of-town teachers who taught at the Rosenwald school.
The six classrooms in the Rosenwald school did not have enough space for all of the area’s students. Additional classrooms were housed in the nearby Good Hope Baptist Church and a small cinder block building called the “community hut.” All of the school’s 1,000 students, however, assembled for special events in the school’s large auditorium.
When the new Williams Memorial High School opened in 1954, it featured an indoor basketball court, hot lunches and a school large enough to accommodate all of the students.
But until the 1970s, St. George residents continued to use the old school for social events, plays, recitals, training center for civil rights workers and agricultural programs and a Head Start Center. It also had an in-ground swimming pool with a pavilion, added after the school closed.
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