A tale needed to be told

Vi­vian Har­ris brings Ox­ford’s African Amer­i­can her­itage to life in new book

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - KAYLA ROBINS

Vi­vian Har­ris has been wait­ing to tell the story of the African Amer­i­cans of Ox­ford for some time. And now is her time.

Among Ox­ford’s 175th birth­day cel­e­bra­tions will be a float in the July 4th pa­rade rep­re­sent­ing the Ox­ford Rosen­wald School, dec­o­rated with anec­dotes from the past and liv­ing ex­am­ples of the present and fu­ture in alumni who still re­side in the city.

One of those alumni is Har­ris, pos­si­bly the big­gest voice of the Ox­ford African Amer­i­can story that re­fused to let it go un­told. Her vivid mem­ory and love for where she came from trans­formed into an 1,800-page book that she said should be re­leased in Septem­ber.

“Where did we come from? I want to know my iden­tity,” Har­ris said. “The more mi­nori­ties who can know their past the more con­tent they will be.”

Har­ris at­tended the Rosen­wald School on Mitchell Street be­gin­ning in 1947 be­fore be­ing trans­ferred to Wash­ing­ton Street School then mov­ing to Michi­gan when she was 12. The three-teacher school in Ox­ford was among 4,977 schools, 217 teacher homes and 163 in­dus­trial shops that were cre­ated for African Amer­i­cans in the South be­fore seg­re­ga­tion was deemed un­con­sti­tu­tional in the mid-20th century.

The schools were the re­sult of a part­ner­ship be­tween Julius Rosen­wald, a wealthy phi­lan­thropist and pres­i­dent of Sears and Roe­buck, and Booker T. Wash­ing­ton, who be­lieved build­ing schools for African Amer­i­cans was their best hope, ac­cord- ing to the 2013 Ox­ford Pedes­trian Con­nec­tiv­ity Study pre­pared by the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia Met­ro­pol­i­tan De­sign Stu­dio.

Ox­ford’s school was built in 1922 and cost $3,300, of which $1,200 came from the lo­cal black com­mu­nity, $1,100 from pub­lic funds and $1,000 from the Rosen­wald fund, ac­cord­ing to a plaque put up in 2011 mark­ing the school’s lo­ca­tion, from which only the foun­da­tion is still vis­i­ble.

Rosen­wald schools across the South were aban­doned when sep­a­rate schools for black and white chil­dren were no longer needed af­ter the mon­u­men­tal Brown vs. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion in 1954. Many fell into dis­re­pair, were torn down, fell down or sold with the property.

“They are an im­por­tant part of any dis­cus­sion about African Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tion in the ear­lier part of the 20th century,” said Jeanne Cyr­i­aque, African Amer­i­can Pro­grams Co­or­di­na­tor for the Ge­or­gia Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources His­toric Preser­va­tion Di­vi­sion. “Onethird of African Amer­i­can kids who went to school in that time went to a Rosen­wald school in the South.

“There’s not a lot of his­tory writ­ten about those schools. So when I find people who know this his­tory, it’s in­valu­able.”

“We had enough hap­pi­ness”

Har­ris is not lack­ing in mem­o­ries. She said she re­mem­bers ev­ery­thing as it was and has sto­ries to put a face on the past, all of which will be in her book.

Har­ris said she used to play with a girl named Shirley Tem­ple Brown, who was of­ten vis­ited — and would join — by Char­layne Hunter, one of the first two African Amer­i­cans to at­tend the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia in 1961.

In fifth grade, Har­ris said she won­dered why she had to learn the Get­tys­burg Ad­dress. She did not un­der­stand why un­til she re­cently re­ceived an email from Pres­i­dent Obama ex­plain­ing why chil­dren learned it in school dur­ing those times.

The last lines of the poem “In­vic­tus” res­onated with her as a school­girl, Har­ris said.

“I am the mas­ter of my fate: I am the cap­tain of my soul,” the poem says.

Har­ris said she did not want to give away too many spoil­ers, but the book has ex­ten­sive documents and records to sup­port her anec­dotes.

“We knew ed­u­ca­tion was the only way we were go­ing to get out,” Har­ris said. “We knew (seg­re­ga­tion) was wrong, but we had enough hap­pi­ness then.”

“I re­ceived a lot of in­spi­ra­tion from the teach­ers to bet­ter my life,” said An­der­son Wright, an alumni of the Ox­ford Rosen­wald school and Har­ris’s cousin.

“People who went there, they ended up be­ing a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing,” said Way­mon Cook­sey, an­other alumni. “So many of them went on to col­lege.”

Com­ing back home

Har­ris re­turned to Ox­ford in 1992 af­ter liv­ing in 37 states with her mil­i­tary hus­band to find the school was gone.

She said she never felt truly dis­crim­i­nated against in Ox­ford, not know­ing what that meant un­til she went up north.

To have her past come back to light “was my dream.”

“I started with card­board, and then an an­gel picked it up,” Har­ris said of the 4th of July pa­rade float, which be­gan con­struc­tion this week.

“Not just a school”

In 2002, the Na­tional Trust for His­toric Preser­va­tion put Rosen­wald schools on the list of en­dan­gered sites and sought the preser­va­tion and restora­tion of as many as pos­si­ble.

The Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia Met­ro­pol­i­tan De­sign Stu­dio met with Har­ris and other alumni of the Ox­ford Rosen­wald School to vis­ually re­con­struct the school ac­cord­ing to de­scrip­tions from those who knew the build­ing when it stood.

“Plans are for the school to be re­built as closely as pos­si­ble to its orig­i­nal de­sign,” said Mayor Jerry Rose­berry. “It will be­come more than a mu­seum — it will be a his­tor­i­cal site where fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will learn that an ed­u­ca­tion is an in­vest­ment that will far ex­ceed its mon­e­tary cost.”

Rose­berry and the Ox­ford City Coun­cil have worked to sup­port the preser­va­tion of the school in sev­eral ways, he said. For­mer coun­cil mem­ber Frank Davis led the ef­fort to cre­ate a park where the school stood and put the plaque as a marker. The coun­cil funded that ef­fort, Rose­berry said, and put in a fence to pro­tect the property from live­stock kept on the farm next door.

“Rosen­wald stu­dents not only learned to read and write and do math­e­mat­ics,” Rose­berry said, “they de­vel­oped a pride in them­selves and their her­itage. The school was not just a school. It was their school. It was a gath­er­ing place for the com­mu­nity.”

The city of Ox­ford and Don­ald Bal­lard, owner of the land on which the school stood, signed a 10year lease for the property in June 2012. They are in the process of try­ing to ex­tend to a 99-year lease to bet­ter the re­sults of cur­rent preser­va­tion work.

“The Rosen­wald site is part of a farm which is in a con­ser­va­tion pro­gram that places lim­its on what can be done with the property. This has to be re­solved be­fore any long-term plans can be put in place. We are con­fi­dent that this can be done,” Rose­berry said.

Once the city can move for­ward with plans, the goal is to rebuild the school and use it as an ed­u­ca­tion cen­ter and mu­seum. Fund­ing for this project will be raised by a non-profit ded­i­cated to the Ox­ford Rosen­wald School cause.

“I re­mem­ber the roads, the paths,” Har­ris said. “We loved go­ing to school. That was the whole world. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor.”

Sub­mit­ted photo /The Cov­ing­ton News

Mayor Rose­berry and other city coun­cil mem­bers showed Vi­vian Har­ris (front), school alumni and other in­ter­ested par­ties around the city and to the site of the rosen­wald school in Ox­ford.

sub­mit­ted photo /The Cov­ing­ton News

From top: Cour­tesy of UGA Met­ro­pol­i­tan De­sign Stu­dio, a re­design blue­print; Alumni of the Rosen­wald school stand with Mayor Rose­berry and other prom­i­nent mem­bers of the city at the site of the school, where only the build­ing’s foun­da­tion is still vis­i­ble.

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