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Rosenwald site eyed for heritage center: 'Practice school' needs restoration

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The former "practice school" built with Rosenwald funding in 1921 is shown on the Elizabeth City State University campus, Friday. Campus officials are hoping the building can be renovated and converted into an African-American Heritage Center.

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Sunday, February 18, 2018

When it was built with Rosenwald funding on what was then the campus of the Elizabeth City Colored Normal School in 1921, the “practice school” was the place where African-American college students learned the craft of teaching.

Under the watchful eyes of their instructors, students enrolled at the Normal School would practice their teaching skills on neighborhood children in the large frame building before taking jobs in the state’s then-segregated black schools.

The practice school building has been moved several times and gone on to serve a number of other functions — for a while it housed a cosmetology school before it became host to an ROTC center for student cadets. 

Despite its changing uses and sites, however, the practice school has remained a place for education.

And now, thanks to ECSU and group of community and regional partners, the former practice school is being reinvented again — this time as an African-American Heritage Center for northeastern North Carolina.

The goal of the renovation project, say organizers, is to create a resource center for researchers of African-American history as well as an interpretive site for the public, helping connect people to the rich history of black communities in the region.

Russ Haddad, special assistant to ECSU Chancellor Thomas Conway, said ECSU officials believe the center will bring both visitors and prospective students to the ECSU campus.

The center also would help make Elizabeth City itself more of a destination by offering visitors a living history site they can walk through and see up-close. Haddad said Elizabeth City has a historic walking tour that provides views of historic homes from the outside but doesn’t have a good site for seeing the inside of a historic building.

One of the things project organizers are working on is a reliable estimate of the restoration work’s cost. The current estimate — which Haddad acknowledged is basically an educated guess — is at least $650,000.

Restoration of the building and development of the center is expected to be a phased-in, multi-year project, and the timetable is still being worked out.

Although a degree of restoration is required, Charles Reed, an associate professor of history at ECSU, said much of the original structure for the practice school remains “to a degree that it’s really impressive.”

And despite what the word “historic” might suggest the building has not really sat around gathering dust.

“It’s always been in use,” said Melissa Stuckey, an assistant professor of African-American history at ECSU.

Stuckey said after the building stopped being used as a practice school or “model school,” it served as a cosmetology school and later as ECSU’s ROTC center. Today it’s now mostly used for storage.

According to ECSU officials, the practice school building was funded through the Rosenwald Fund, the organization founded in 1919 by Sears, Roebuck and Co. Chief Executive Officer Julius Rosenwald to assist in the construction of community schools for black students in the South. Rosenwald Schools were built with grants from the Rosenwald Fund that were matched with funding from the black community where the school was built.

Three Rosenwald Schools, as the schools came to be called, were built in Pasquotank County. However, the Rosenwald School building on ECSU’s campus was the only one ever built on a college campus in North Carolina. Besides serving as a modern school for neighborhood children, the building was always operated as a training center for student teachers.

Stuckey notes that, although the Normal School always had plenty of other space for students to practice teaching, “certainly this Rosenwald School was a big step forward in terms of facilities for that purpose.”

Haddad said community partnerships are an important part of the practice school’s renovation project, and one of those partnerships is with the Elizabeth City Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, which will help to market the center as a destination for travelers.

The Northeast North Carolina Underground Railroad Foundation, which already has a strong presence in Elizabeth City, works to promote the heritage of black communities in the region. 

Wanda Hunt McLean, who is active with the Underground Railroad Foundation, said the group can be a good resource for the project.,

“It’s just part of preserving African-American history,” McLean said.

McLean noted that many of the first Rosenwald students were grandchildren of slaves.

Reid Thomas of the State Historic Preservation Office and Edgecombe Community College’s historic preservation program also are important partners for the project, Haddad said.

Haddad said donations are being accepted for the African-American Heritage Center. Donations will be channeled through the ECSU Foundation, he said.

Numerous grants also are being sought as the project moves forward, Reed said.

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