Funding stalls plan to build on black schoolhouse legacy

They stripped away layers of peeling paint, repaired the wooden siding and then added four new coats of primer and latex paint. The bright, almost glaring, yellow gave the Sykesville Colored Schoolhouse the hue its remaining alumni remember well.

"It looks the same today, except it used to have an outhouse that was the same color," said Ruth Gaither, 81, of Sykesville, among the last to attend what was the only school for African-American children in South Carroll. "We never had any trouble finding that building."


A century ago, when the one-room school opened, it would have been painted with yellow oxide paint, a popular choice for public buildings because it was inexpensive, available, durable and bonded well to wood.

The yellow schoolhouse sits atop a small hill overlooking the town and the south branch of the Patapsco River, where students would trek to draw water. For the last decade, the town has worked to preserve the schoolhouse, the only one of its kind in Carroll County.


With grant money and volunteer labor, the exterior has been restored, the roof repaired and the foundation stabilized. But the grants have run out and the town's small budget cannot handle the expense of finishing the interior.

So the town is calling for volunteers to bring the school back to life and re-create within its walls a testimony to those who learned there and left their imprint on Sykesville history. If the building is to become a museum, it will need a restroom, heating and air conditioning and a new electrical system.

"This building was originally a community effort and the community has saved it over the years," said Pat Greenwald, a retired teacher and the town's schoolhouse project coordinator. "We are just asking them to do it again."

From the day it opened Jan. 4, 1904, the school has been part of the fabric of the town. The county built it at the request of two African-American fathers who wanted their children educated. As many as 50 students a year in five grades with one teacher studied there for the next 35 years.

"We didn't have the expensive tablets filled with lined paper," said Gaither. "We had brown paper, used books and ink made from berries picked along the river. But we learned."

Another alumnus, William A. "Billy" Fossett, 75, of Baltimore, said it was easy to learn "especially because older students helped the younger ones. Everybody knew everybody and everybody helped everybody."

Fossett remembers walking more than two miles to school and arriving early so he could build a fire with coal in the basement or with firewood.

"The boys took care of the wood and I remember it was hard to keep that building warm," he said. "The boys also had to get the water from a stream a quarter-mile away."


He recalls "hand-me-down books from the white schools," dedicated teachers and a determination to learn. "I could read the newspaper by the time I was in third grade," he said.

Dana McCaulley, an anthropologist at Prince George's Community College and a town resident, is gathering an oral history from surviving alumni to donate to the schoolhouse.

"The family devotion to education is amazing," she said. "Parents totally reinforced everything the teacher did. The former students speak of the stark setting, how hard they worked and the success of so many of them afterward."

Despite the difficulties getting there and the daily hardships, Greenwald has unearthed records that show the school averaged 86 percent attendance. Students left with a solid foundation, said Fossett, an Army veteran of the Korean War who later earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland. He is retired after a long career with the state.

Mabel Johnson and Earl Norris met at the school and later married. They paid $100 for the building at an auction in 1939 and converted it into a home. Later, Eugene Johnson, a town councilman for the past 20 years, lived at the schoolhouse. Johnson refused to let developers raze the building 25 years ago to make way for the townhouses that nearly encircle it.

"I would not let them tear it down," said Johnson, whose older siblings, including Ruth Gaither, attended the school. "It is history. You can't take history away."


And it was Johnson who persuaded the town to take on a restoration effort that attracted national attention. Save America's Treasures, a federal preservation program, lists the schoolhouse among its projects and the Maryland Historic Trust has helped with the restoration.

"This building is not majorly altered like so many other schoolhouses that have survived," said Barbara Lilly, director of the Historical Society of Carroll County, who has also had a hand in the restoration effort. "It has some ravages of time, but most of its original fabric. The community ran it responsibly and it was a point of pride."

The "ghost marks" from the school - outlines of blackboards and ridges in the floor from rows of desks - remain, said Matthew Candland, town manager, who estimates the remaining work will cost about $50,000.

"The worst thing would be not to use it," Candland said. "A lot of people have taken pride in this building and protected it. It is not complicated work that remains. All the bones are here. We just need the expertise."

Sykesville Mayor Jonathan S. Herman, a building contractor, called the building "a piece of town history worth saving. The building is nicely intact with no structural problems."

Herman said he will work with volunteers, certain "if the public stays behind this, it will succeed."


Greenwald is gathering antiques, hoping to re-create an early 20th-century classroom. She wants "a functional schoolhouse" with historical programs for visiting students. She has the support of Carroll's superintendent, Charles I. Ecker.

"We should keep these treasures from years ago," Ecker said. "This is a time in our history that we don't want to forget. The school is a great asset for field trips. We have to restore the past to tell what life used to be without all the modern conveniences we now take for granted."