Placement on national register a point of pride for alumni

82-year-old school for blacks makes history

October 24, 2007|By SUSAN GVOZDAS | SUSAN GVOZDAS,Special to The Sun

Set in a neighborhood becoming dotted with new homes, the white building that houses the Freetown Improvement Association looks plain and unremarkable.

The building, however, used to be a focal point of a small community of black farmers founded by ex-slaves in the mid-1800s.

Freetown Elementary was a two-room schoolhouse when it opened in 1925, funded partly by a philanthropist who sought to provide schools to blacks when segregation and discrimination were standard practice.

It had no indoor plumbing, so students had to use outhouses. They had to run into the woods to cut wood for the stove to heat the building whenever the coal ran out. And because black children didn't get school buses, some students had to walk several miles.

These were hard times, but former students remember them fondly. They swell with pride over their former school's placement was placed last month on the National Register of Historic Places.

The designation means that the National Park Service recognizes the building as an important part of state history, said Nancy Kurtz, the National Register coordinator for the Maryland Historical Trust.

For Clayton Greene Jr., a judge on the state Court of Appeals, the school represents a humble start for himself and many black professionals. It is also a symbol of how far they have come.

"I think it's a beacon of light, a beacon of hope," said Greene, who went to the school for two years until a more modern one was built, in 1959. "I think it's a testament of what can be done if people work together for a common cause."

Lillie Caldwell, who attended Freetown from 1948 to 1952, said she made it her mission to get the school recognized when she retired from teaching in 2001. Caldwell, 68, researched the process to get on the National Historic Registry and submitted the nomination form. "This is my foundation," she said.

Once the nomination was submitted, the state review board considered and recommended it for approval to the National Registry in Washington.

Former Sears, Roebuck and Co. executive Julius Rosenwald worked with Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute to start a school-building program for black students in the early 1900s. The Rosenwald Fund helped build more than 5,000 rural elementary schools in 17 states in and around the South, according to the National Historic Register. The Rosenwald Fund provided matching grants, but more importantly, it helped built a bridge between black communities and white boards of education to get the schools built.

The Rosenwald fund donated $700 in matching funds to build the $3,500 Freetown school. The black community raised $400, and the government contributed the remainder. In Anne Arundel County, 11 of the 23 Rosenwald schools are still standing.

A Rosenwald school in Glen Burnie, the circa-1927 Marley Neck School, was placed on the National Register in 2002. Two others are under consideration: the Churchton and Shady Side Rosenwald School and the Queenstown School in Severn.

"Hopefully all the others will follow suit," said Walter Caldwell, president of the Freetown Improvement Association and Lillie Caldwell's younger brother. "(Rosenwald) should be honored throughout the county."

Former students said they had a love and respect for their former school, where teachers took no guff but made learning fun. Students had to learn a poem every month and read a Bible verse every morning. They did nature walks in the surrounding woods. Students made do with hand-me-down books and furniture from white schools.

"It didn't matter to us," said Florence Bouyer Anderson, who had a 2.5-mile walk to school when she went in 1939. "We were learning."

Students' mothers brought soup during the winter and warmed it on a hot plate. County officials dropped off crates of apples and oranges at least once a year, said Lillie Caldwell.

In addition to Caldwell, the school produced another teacher, Carlean Bouyer Clark, Anderson's younger sister.

"It's my heart," Clark said. "It's a stepping stone in history."

William Bouyer, her 75-year-old brother, was a student, but also a janitor when he went to the school starting in 1937. He started the coal fire in the morning and occasionally had to chop wood for the stove when the coal ran out.

Bouyer said he is proud of the historic recognition for the school. "It makes me feel excellent," he said.

The Freetown Improvement Association is working with developers to preserve the names of the families who first settled the community. The name Bouyer marks the name of the nearby Bouyer's Landing neighborhood.

Walter Caldwell said that is why the placing of the schoolhouse on the National Historic Register is so important.

"We have a rich, rich legacy," Walter Caldwell said. "We are not going to let our legacy step away from us like other communities."

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