CATAWBA — A small, two-room schoolhouse on South Anderson Road may look abandoned, but its a labor of love for community members and alumni who hope to see the school restored to its former glory.
Built in 1925, Liberty Hill is one of two remaining historic Rosenwald schools in York County the other being the Carroll School in Rock Hill.
Both schools were part of the Rosenwald School Building Program, which provided funding for the construction of nearly 5,000 schoolhouses throughout the rural south for black children, including 20 schools in York County.
The modest schoolhouse is where alumna Elaine Johnson Copeland, 70, studied fifth and sixth grades under the watchful eye of her teacher who also happened to be her mother.
She was hard, Copeland said with a laugh about her mother, Lucille Hawkins Johnson, who encouraged healthy competition. My mother always had us competing with each other.
Copelands father was also a schoolteacher at Liberty Hill and taught class in an adjacent room.
On a typical school day, Liberty Hill hosted more than 70 schoolchildren. Meager state funding for black students translated to used textbooks, tight quarters, and classes comprised of multiple grades.
I dont think we thought it was bad when we were here, Copeland said of the subpar funding the school received. We had to learn about what its like to live in a segregated environment.
Copeland went on to become an educator herself and is currently the president of Clinton College in Rock Hill. Another Liberty Hill alumnus of the school is Rock Hill Councilman Osbey Roddey.
The one-floor schoolhouse is structurally sound, but several window panes are missing or broken. Old appliances and paint cans sit in vacant school rooms.
Weve been amazed by how well its stood the test of time, said Gladys Feely Robinson, who heads the community-led board that is spearheading efforts to reinvigorate the nearly century-old schoolhouse. After a lengthy two-year process, the school was finally placed on the national registry in July.
The Rosenwald program was a collaboration between black educator Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, in the early 20th century. The other sites in the county have been abandoned or demolished.
Robinson didnt attend the school herself, but her great grandfather was the first principal of the school, known officially as the Catawba Rosenwald School, but colloquially as Liberty Hill after a local church.
While the Rosenwald program provided some construction funds, the bulk of support for the school came from efforts by Liberty Hill Missionary Baptist Church. The church has also gone on to maintain the schools grounds for the past 60 years. Three church members currently sit on the board to restore the school and several of the alumni still belong to the church.
The plan is to restore the school, Robinson said, which includes locating original furniture that was distributed among residents when it shut down in the mid 1950s along with other Rosenwald sites to make way for integrated school districts.
Board members hope to reopen the restored site as a community center, which harkens back to its schooldays when the building served as much more than just a place to take lessons.
Theodore Roddey, an alumnus and church member, remembers the choir events at the school and calculating the weight of a bale of cotton on the chalkboard.
The school year at Liberty Hill ran through the summer and to a break in the fall to allow children to work the harvest. The school also hosted movie nights and baseball games against other Rosenwald schools.
Roddey, 88, and other students recalled mile-long commutes by foot each morning to the school some coming early to start a fire to heat the building during the winter.
As packed as the school was, Roddey said the teachers of Liberty Hill ran a tight ship and students started the school day by reciting a verse out of the bible before quietly starting lessons.
If even you moved, she could tell, Roddey said of one of his teachers. No talking in class.
The board has filed for non-profit status to start a foundation to raise funds and acquire the title to the property, which currently belongs to the Rock Hill school district.
Robinson said she also hopes to start hosting an annual reunion for alumni of the school, many of which still live nearby in Catawba and Rock Hill and are well into their 80s and 90s.
Im very passionate about putting everything together so it can be a viable part of the Catawba community, she said. They have stories to share.
Jie Jenny Zou • 803-329-4062