Renovation of one-room schoolhouse in Galesville nears completion

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.

Flashbacks

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.

"It has been a very special place, with lots of memories, thanks to everything that has happened there," says Rever Sellman, 74, who graduated from the school in 1948. "It's more than my dream to see it brought back."

Doing so has meant a lot of work — and a glimpse into history.

Makell, who first brainstormed the idea among some of her church friends in 2003, has led the process.

Her first order of business, she says, was to get the structure stabilized. The building stood vacant for 20 years, a silent reminder of the past just off Galesville's main road. Exposure to the elements had left the roof leaky and most of the 30 double-hung sash windows damaged.

With a $90,000 community-development loan from Anne Arundel County, Makell had a new roof installed and had the windows boarded up — a necessary step, says Michael Dowling, the Annapolis architect who has overseen the restoration.

"The building was surprisingly intact," says Dowling, who had earlier renovated similar buildings in the county. "There was some original wainscoting, and we've matched it. The wood floors were solid."

The building's condition helped Makell score a $200,000 grant from the state in 2009, a total the county matched.

Part of the grantors' motivation, she says, was a story the finished product will tell. Unbeknownst to the hundreds of children who studied there, their schoolhouse was part of an educational movement that spread across the South between 1917 and 1932.

In those days, a wealthy Chicago philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald — a founding director of the Sears, Roebuck empire and a friend of black educational activist Booker T. Washington — created a fund that would pay $4 million toward the construction of more than 4,900 schools for black children in 15 Southern states. Those included 156 in Maryland, 23 of them in Anne Arundel County.

Susan Pearl, a Prince George's County historian who has just finished a two-year study of the schools for the state, says Maryland has developed a keen interest in that chapter of its history.

Like every other Rosenwald school, she says, Galesville's was designed from a single architectural template — wood frame structure, one story, bright walls, dark trim. The design, first developed at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, aimed at maximizing space while minimizing cost.

Last week, Makell's contractors had finished restoring the huge windows every Rosenwald school featured on the east- and west-facing walls — design elements that made the fullest use of natural light throughout the day, eliminating the need for electric illumination.

As he hung the last remnants of some period trim, contractor Kevin Phillips shook his head.

"Those designs were environmentally very progressive," he said. "We can learn a lot from them now."

Back to the future

That's not all he has learned. When he first came to the site last October, all Phillips, an Upper Marlboro resident, knew of Galesville was that it used to sponsor fireworks and a parade on the Fourth of July.

With each passing day, he has become more familiar to the folks whose past he is resurrecting — complete with some modern amenities, such as wheelchair accessibility, hot and cold running water, and men's and women's bathrooms.

"People are always stopping by to say hello," he says, "and they sure know me down at the Portside Inn" — one of three restaurants in the tiny town.

To Makell, the camaraderie is all part and parcel of life in Galesville, a town where a tiny wooden building on West Benning Road once helped galvanize community life, and where she says it will again.

Sometime next month, a ribbon-cutting ceremony will officially reopen the building, and the summer camps, potluck dinners and dances that have long been held in a local church will be moved there.

There will be computer classes for seniors, Makell says, and some memorabilia representing Galesville history, including period photos of the place. McCullers hopes to sponsor a reunion of surviving Rosenwald school teachers in the fall.

It will be the old days, 2010-style.

For his part, Phillips says he is "proud to help return this treasure to the community." But when the project is finally complete, he expects a bittersweet feeling.

"I've gotten to like the folks here," he says. "I don't know if I'm going to want to leave."

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