A school, a legacy restored

Ribbon-cutting to mark rebirth of schoolhouse as historical museum

September 03, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

For decades, Christine Presberry Tolbert watched the slow deterioration of the one-room schoolhouse that generations of her family attended. She feared that the rich history of the Hosanna School in Darlington and of its students would be demolished along with the dilapidated structure if she didn't try to save it. In 1982, Tolbert went before the General Assembly seeking money to restore the schoolhouse to its original state and establish a museum.

"I wanted to restore the school to keep the African-American heritage alive," said Tolbert, a Berkley resident who retired in 1987 after 29 years as a teacher, counselor and supervisor with the Harford County public schools. "But I also wanted to share the experience of the students who attended the one-room school with the public."

The dream of Tolbert and other organizers will be realized at a ribbon-cutting Saturday to commemorate the opening of the restored school and museum.

"It's so exciting and such a relief to see this project completed because African-Americans finally have something that gives us a historic presence in Harford County," Tolbert said.

The opening event will last from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will include guided tours, a presentation on Buffalo Soldiers, book signings by African-American authors and the ribbon-cutting.

Community support for the school will continue long after the fanfare of the opening ends.

County Executive David R. Craig has allotted an $18,000 annual grant for upkeep of the museum.

"The school is not only important to African-American heritage, but it's also a part of all of our history," said Craig. "We need to do what we can to help keep its doors open."

The school system has added an African-American section to the curriculum and is creating a permanent exhibit on the history of the county's black schools in the administration building.

"I want an exhibit that captures the essence of the one-room and consolidated black schools in the county," said Jacqueline C. Haas, superintendent of the county schools. "This is a part of our history that we don't want to forget. We don't want future generations growing up like us, not knowing it even existed."

Hosanna School was established in 1867 by the Federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau. It was Harford County's first public school for blacks.

To depict what life might have been like during the late 1860s, the museum contains artifacts including antique desks from the early 1900s, original chalkboards, textbooks such as a McGuffey Reader, a set of encyclopedias, a pair of lace-up shoes from the late 1800s, a lamp used in the mid-1800s, ice tongs and a meat grinder.

"I worked to put the museum together with items that were actually used by people that attended the school, as well as some that are representative of what would have been used," Tolbert said.

The museum experience also includes Gladys Williams, a former teacher at the school, teaching a lesson as it would have been taught in the early 1900s.

"She tells the visiting students what the schedule of the day might have been," Tolbert said. "She introduces civics and asks the kids if they know what it is called today."

Seeing what it was like to be in a classroom is necessary to appreciate the African-American one-rooms schools, Haas said.

"From a historic perspective, the school's preservation and the opportunity to go into the school enables children to go back in history and sit in those old desks and experience firsthand what life in a one-room school was like," Haas said. "It's an invaluable lesson."

The scarcity of knowledge about Hosanna School results in part from its closing to students in 1946, when the deteriorating building was deemed unsafe for children.

At that point the two-story clapboard structure was used for church services and community meetings. Then, in 1954, Hurricane Hazel ripped off the second floor of the building. It remained that way until the restoration work, which cost about $600,000, was completed.

At the opening, guests will be able to view A Salute to Black Inventors, an exhibit featuring more than a 100 antique pieces dating from 1830 to the present and including replicas of items patented or improved by blacks.

The exhibit was created by Sharoll Williams-Love, an Aberdeen resident who spent more than two decades compiling the collection, which includes a shoe lasting machine, invented by Jan Matzeliger, that was used to sew the sole to the upper part of a shoe.

Other objects in the exhibit were improved by African-American inventors, including the light bulb, the ironing board, golf tees, traffic lights and a typewriter.

Each item in the exhibit will include an identification card with an illustration of the patented invention from the U.S. Patent Office.

"We include the illustrations so people can see how close we come to the patented items," Williams-Love said. "Also, we want people to develop an appreciation for African-American intellect and contributions to the world."

For Tolbert, the opening will be the rewarding conclusion of a decades-long effort to save the school.

"When I started working on this project it seemed as though most people had forgotten all about the Hosanna School," Tolbert said. "I felt like I had to get the museum and restoration done before I drew my last breath, or it would be lost forever. Now people want to help us keep this part of the African-American heritage alive."

The Hosanna School is at 2424 Castleton Road in Darlington. Tours are given by appointment. Information: 410-457-4161.

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