With a big donation in hand, the next phase of the restoration of a Rosenwald School in Albemarle County can now move forward.
St. John Family Life and Fitness Center, Inc. has received a $75,000 grant toward the rehabilitation of St. John School, which served the African American community in the Cobham and Gordonsville areas of Albemarle County during the Jim Crow era.
“We've been continually doing things in the restoration process,” said Kelvin R. Hawkins, vice president of St. John Family Life and Fitness Center Inc. and pastor of St. John Baptist Church.
The nonprofit is working toward restoring the building to become a community center, with a health resource and fitness component and museum about the school and community.
"It's a significant part of this community ... My mother attended this school, I attended this school and so many of the alumni are still in this community,” said Rebecca Kinney, president of the nonprofit.
The school building was constructed in 1922 and was one of seven Rosenwald Schools built in Albemarle. Only five of the schools are still in existence in the county.
The Rosenwald Fund contributed $700 and the plan for the St. John School, and the local African American community provided $400, and the white community provided $100. The Albemarle County school board matched these donations.
The Fund was established to build schools for primarily for African American children throughout the south by Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck, and Company in partnership with Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute.
According to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the fund helped build 664 schools and 18 teachers’ homes and vocational buildings in Virginia.
Kinney attended the school during its final two years, but said many alumni agree they received a favorable education.
“We did get a good education, and the teachers were just fantastic,” she said. “They were very concerned about us learning and it just wasn't a job for them.”
Hawkins said the community center is not just for the St. John Baptist church family, but for the community at large.
“We want this building to be a place where we can educate individuals regarding health issues, we can have a place we can assemble together, a place whereby we can come and exercise and just share some health tips and all of those types of things,” he said.
The grant was part of the he African American Civil Rights program of the Historic Preservation Fund, administered by the National Park Service.
Kinney said they had applied for the previous round of funding, but were not successful.
The first phase of the project -- putting in septic system -- is already complete.
“Phase two is to stabilize the building,” Kinney said. “In the olden times, the code for building buildings was not the same as it is now, and so there's a lot of things that have to be done underneath this building to stabilize it and to make sure it's up to code.”
The group plans on starting the interior work within the next year, depending on how much additional money they raise.
“We're working still to raise more funds, and if we can do that then the process itself probably wouldn't take more than two years, or maybe less,” she said.
Those involved with the nonprofit had considered constructing an addition on the back of the building, but ultimately decided against the expansion for the foreseeable future.
“As we learned more about the stipulations for keeping it historic, we have determined, at this time, to just ... restore the building as it stands now,” Kinney said.
“We want to make sure we preserve what we have as opposed to building anything,” Hawkins said.
In addition to receiving a VDHR historical highway marker in 2016, the school was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 2018 and the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year.