Renovation of one-room schoolhouse in Galesville nears completion

$493,000 project will reclaim chapter of local African-American history

May 08, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

She remembers it as though it were yesterday — the rows of fresh-faced students, the stern but caring teachers, the potbelly stove in the two-room building.

And for Gertrude Makell, the homework never seemed to stop: arithmetic, spelling, history.

That was 54 years ago, when Makell was a third-grader at the tiny Galesville Colored Elementary School, the only grade school then open to African-American children in the rural town on the water. Today, she's poised to make some history of her own.

Workers will soon complete a mission Makell dreamed up seven years ago — the full restoration of the structure, which started its life as a one-room schoolhouse in 1929, marked several key stages of African-American history and anchored Galesville's black community for generations.

"Sometimes when you're in the middle of things, like I was then, you don't realize what you have," says Makell, 62, who has lived within a mile of the place for her entire life. "I realized we ought to preserve a building that holds so much history."

On a recent sunny morning, Makell, president of the Galesville Community Center Organization, and two contractors surveyed the progress of the half-million-dollar renovation of the 26-by-67-foot building, now 90 percent finished. Scaffolding hugged the north wall; voices echoed inside.

You could almost picture the community center it will become next month. It's just as easy to imagine its past.


History has marked the Galesville schoolhouse in much the same way schoolchildren have carved their names in desktops. And from the beginning, the pine structure has been about bringing people together.

A strange statement, perhaps, given that segregation was the law of the land when workers built the place as a one-room, one-teacher schoolhouse. A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896 had decreed it lawful to separate schoolchildren based on race, since black and white schools would be "separate but equal," in the words of one justice.

To modern Americans, that era might seem like the preserve of dusty old textbooks. But for many in and around Galesville — a onetime watermen's village north of Shady Side in southern Anne Arundel County — it was a vivid thing that gave shape to everyday life.

"We enjoyed ourselves and, oh my, we had wonderful teachers" at Galesville Elementary, says the Rev. Melvin Booze, 79, of Churchton, who attended the school from 1936 to 1944 and later taught there. "But we always got 'seconds' — books that were torn, you know, already used — and never got to experience white, Hispanic, Japanese and other cultures like children do today. That was a shame."

Not that the students had much time to notice. They walked to school, some from as far away as Cumberstone several miles north. During winter, teachers arrived long before the students to load up the stove with coal. Sometimes they'd cook bean soup on it for lunch before marching as many as 70 children (grades one through six) through their lessons. Because there was no indoor plumbing, everyone used the outhouses out back.

To Booze and others, the teachers seemed so caring that they came across as second mothers — though in the event of misbehavior, they weren't shy about rapping knuckles with a ruler or a big black pencil.

"You didn't have too much of a discipline problem," says Booze, who later taught for more than three decades in Anne Arundel County's public schools. "A child would think twice or three times before doing something" wrong.

About a dozen local residents, many of them former students, serve on Makell's commission. Last week, as contractors from Albrecht Construction in Woodbine hung interior and exterior doors, sanded and stained the floors and prepared to restore the original Dorian gray paint to the period wooden siding, a buzz was growing.

"The contractors have been so nice, allowing us to frequent the place [as they've worked]," says Dorothea McCullers, 69, who is Booze's younger sister. She graduated in 1952 before moving on to Bates High in Annapolis.

"They ask me what I remember," she says. "It's like I'm having flashbacks. I just daydream. I'm so glad it's about to be restored."

Progressive design

One thing that comes back to McCullers is how the community used the building after it ceased operating as a school in 1956, two years after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling called for an end to segregated public education.

William Woodfield, a local businessman, bought the place for $1,000 in 1958 and in effect donated it to the black community. From then through the early 1980s, under the aegis of the organization Makell now heads, it became the site of socials, dances and dinners and more, a hub of activity.

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