Written by Carol Jones Shields
As a child growing up between Virginia and North Carolina, I was often told of my Native American ancestry from my mother’s side of the family. Interestingly enough, I recently found out that I may also have similar roots on my father’s side. For the most part, the concrete evidence of my cultural heritage came from my mother’s account, my good fortune to inherit a skin-type which was very tolerate of the sun, and my almond shaped brown eyes - a trait I shared with many of my maternal cousins. Beyond these simple markers, the link to my past has been a bit of a mystery. I recognize that for some of us the limited cultural resources of our heritage present a challenge in our quest to discover our true essence and origin. From this very personal viewpoint, I have evolved into an inspired preservationist who believes our various cultural perspectives and places should all be valued pieces of our collective American story.
Over the past few years I have been working with Roanoke River Partners, a regionally-based grassroots organization, to preserve the story and artifacts of the Hamilton Colored School in Hamilton, North Carolina. This historic school, located just off the bank of the Roanoke River, is one of the nationally celebrated Rosenwald Schools – the thousands of schools built mostly for African Americans with supplemental funding provided by Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, in partnership with Booker T. Washington. I am interested in this mostly African American and Jewish heritage story as someone whose own cultural and family history has always been a bit ambiguous.
Since 2007, Roanoke River Partners has acquired grant funding to purchase this historic property, obtain architectural guidance, complete external repairs and renovation (thanks to a Lowe’s Foundation grant) for new use as the Rosenwald River Center, and to engage the community in the recovery of surviving artifacts and the oral and written history associated with this site. In addition to advocacy and grant writing, I have been the researcher and historian for this project, and have compiled a summary of our findings in a book entitled, Hamilton Rosenwald School Preservation Story: Preserving the memories, the faces and the place. My involvement in this preservation effort has provided me with a welcome opportunity to work closely with an under-served community of color to preserve their built legacy.
I feel most fortunate to have had the chance to further explore my own diversity, as well as that of others, as one of the 49 Diversity Scholars at the 2011 National Preservation Conference in Buffalo. As a result of my participation, I returned home with a full heart, re-energized and committed to the preservation of a diverse palette of regional culture and heritage. I eagerly anticipate future communications and collaborations with the National Trust and I am deeply grateful to those whose contributions helped to make this one my most culturally enriching experiences.
Carol Jones Shields is currently the researcher/historian of the Hamilton Rosenwald School and an executive board member with Roanoke River Partners. Carol was a first time Diversity Scholar at the 2011 National Preservation Conference and she will present her Rosenwald research at the 2012 National Rosenwald Schools Conference in Tuskegee, Alabama, from June 14-16. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.