A tale needed to be told
Vivian Harris brings Oxford’s African American heritage to life in new book
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.”
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.
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.