Written by Tracy Hayes
Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of visiting the Great Branch Teacherage in Orangeburg, SC to celebrate the completion of its three year restoration project and reopening to the public.
In 2008, the Great Branch Community Center received a $50,000 grant from Lowe’s and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to support this effort. Since 2006, Lowe’s has generously contributed four million dollars to fund 53 preservation and restoration projects across the country, including 33 Rosenwald School buildings. At Great Branch, the Orangeburg Lowe’s store also provided volunteer assistance through its Heroes program as well as providing building supplies for much of the interior work.
The Great Branch Teacherage, which served as the home for the principal and teachers from the Great Branch Rosenwald School, is the second of those 33 projects to complete its restoration and reopen to serve the local community. (Read about the first, Virginia's Scrabble School, here.) Health screenings for seniors and educational tours and activities for school children will be offered there, and computers with internet access and a walking trail on the campus will be available in the future.
“It came to me in a dream,” alumnus Frank Young said of his vision to transform the blighted and abandoned building into a restored and vital part of the Great Branch Community Center. Together with his friend, fellow alum, and current president of the Great Branch Restoration Project, Jervey Kennerly, they formed a committee and found the leader they needed in Rosa Kennerly (no relation to Jervey), a recently retired school administrator. With Rosa on board to organize people and write grants, the project took off. They gave themselves three years--no small task--and finished just under their self-imposed deadline.
Sunday’s reopening event was standing room only. Nearly 150 people, including state legislators; county councilmen; school district administrators; a former teacher; alumni with their children and grandchildren; community members; National Trust staff; and the Orangeburg, SC Lowe’s manager, Sheldon Griggs attended the ceremony. Local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops were on hand to help out, a motorcycle club helped park cars, State Troopers stopped traffic to allow guests to proceed across the road to the community center for tours of the teacherage, and refreshments under tents that provided much-needed respite from the afternoon sun. Attendees young and old enjoyed the festivities on the warm, sunny afternoon in rural Orangeburg County. “It’s a great day for Great Branch!” declared Young.
In the early 1900’s, Rosenwald Schools were built by the community and served as more than just schools. They were meeting places and community centers. It is wonderful to see how this community came together again to save the teacherage and its history, and to restore it for community service once again. When I consider the condition of this building when I was first introduced to it in 2006, and its condition on Sunday when I stepped inside, the transformation is remarkable. It’s a true success story, and I look forward to 31 more stories of Rosenwald School preservation success!
Tracy Hayes is the Rosenwald Initiative program assistant in the Southern Regional office of National Trust for Historic Preservation.