The Restoration of a Rosenwald School
Restoration of a Rosenwald School: Barbecue with a side of Southern History
COINJOCK – People who enjoy stopping at Currituck BBQ will soon be able to learn a little local history while having their meal. Owner, Paul Robinson, has purchased the historic Coinjock Rosenwald School and will soon move it to its new location next to his restaurant, less than a quarter mile away. When he is finished remodeling, visitors will get to see one classroom restored to the way it used to be and then visit an ice cream shop on the other side.
Robinson has been trying to purchase the property for a number of years from the property’s current owners. Until recently, they were unwilling to sell for a price which would make restoration possible. While he has been trying to purchase the property, Robinson and his sister have read as much as possible about the history of the Rosenwald schools and have attended conferences about their restoration.
Though time has taken its toll on the building, the structure is believed to be sound. Some of the flooring has fallen through and sections of the roof are falling in but it is easy to imagine the original function of the building.
The dilapidated, four-room structure currently sits by the road at 4358 Caratoke Highway and hardly looks like the historic structure that it is. The school was built in 1920 as part of a partnership between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, part-owner and president of the Sears Roebuck Co., which helped finance construction of more than 5,000 schools across the South for African-American education, over 800 in North Carolina alone.
Washington saw a need for schools in the segregated South where schools for black students were often funded at a fraction of the amount allocated for white students. He approached Rosenwald in 1911 to provide seed money for construction of new schools and the two established the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Before the fund, the education of black students in the segregated South took place in old, less desirable buildings.
In order to receive fund money, white and black citizens had to collaborate to raise money for the construction of the school. In the case of the Coinjock School, $1,000 came from black families in the area, $200 from white residents, $2,000 from the county, and $800 from the Rosenwald Fund.
The school had two classrooms, one for grades 1-3 and one for grades 4-6. It served students living in the villages of Coinjock, Currituck, Barco and Maple.
The first references to the school appeared in Currituck County School Board minutes from September 1918 which said the new school would be known as the Crawford Colored School #7. The new school would have two rooms “in accordance with the State Plan Book for the building of school houses.”
A unique feature of the Coinjock School is the extra space provided by an additional 16 x 18 room suggested by N.C. Newbold, State Agent for Rural Schools who handled monies from the Rosenwald Fund.
Many features of the original structure are clearly visible, and Robinson is eager to bring those back so the public can view them. A hallmark of Rosenwald Schools were the large banks of windows on the north side of the building so that students would have adequate natural light for reading and studying. Windows that cannot be replaced will be rebuilt to meet the same specifications as the originals, Robinson said.
Rosenwald Schools also had specific interior color schemes. Robinson points out sections of the walls which clearly show the original wainscoting and brown and burgundy colors on the walls. In addition to aesthetics, the colors were chosen by the Fund because they were believed to intensify the light and cut down on the glare from the windows. These colors will be maintained in the restoration.
In its nearly 30 year history, it is unknown how many students attended Coinjock School, also referred to in later documents as the Coinjock Colored School, but Currituck County Board of Education records show enrollment for the 1941-42 school year was 81 students with an average daily attendance of 65.
Most students received free lunches, though a small number paid five cents for their meal, according to The Handbook for Parents distributed by the Currituck County Superintendent for Schools in 1941.
By the late 1940s the condition of the building had deteriorated to the point that the Currituck Board of Education decided that it wasn’t economically feasible to operate several black schools, so it began to make plans to build “one central Negro school building to house all colored children.”
In 1950, the board “authorized the sale of all Negro school buildings and property ‘as is’ and ‘where is.’” The Coinjock Colored School was purchased by Judge Chester Morris in 1951 and then sold to the Barrington family three years later.
The Barrington family converted one classroom into living quarters, dividing it into several rooms. The front section which had been used as a cafeteria was converted into a kitchen. The other classroom appears to have been utilized as storage.
The building was identified as having historic significance when Currituck County surveyed buildings in the county eight years ago, and in 2012, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But the school’s significance reaches well beyond the structure itself. Before the Rosenwald education philosophy, on average, white children who were born in 1900 completed 8th grade while black children only reached 5th grade. After Rosenwald schools came to a community that three-year gap was reduced to one year.
“That was only the beginning,” reports Gabrielle Emanuel in a recent National Public Radio broadcast. She adds, “Students who went to Rosenwald schools had higher IQ scores than kids who didn’t. They made more money later in life. They were more likely to travel to the North as part of the Great Migration. They lived a little bit longer. The women delayed marriage and had fewer kids. And crime rates in the area of the schools went down. For Julius Rosenwald, this was a philanthropic home run a century ago.”♦
Jane Elfring is a freelance writer living in Elizabeth City who specializes in historic and arts writing.