After decades of disuse, segregation-era Marley Neck School's newly renovated building becomes a community center

The Baltimore Sun

For the past year or so, Rosalie Gaither returned occasionally to the two-room elementary school that she attended in 1945 to watch its rebirth.

After $470,000 in renovations that have transformed the Marley Neck School into a community center, it has indoor plumbing, electricity and heat. It's what hasn't changed that struck Gaither most.

"I thought it was so much larger when I was a child," she said with a laugh.

Thanks to the efforts of Gaither and her friends Yvonne Henry and Helen Johnson, the former school for black children during the era of segregation officially reopened on Friday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Marley Neck School Center will offer an after-school program for children ages 6 to 12, health care screening, tutoring and other social services and activities.

The school was built in 1927 as part of Sears executive and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald's nationwide program to provide educational opportunities for black children. One of at least 24 Rosenwald schools built in Anne Arundel County, it cost the most: $4,300.

But it still lacked basic amenities. Students used an outhouse and had to light a coal stove during bitterly cold winter mornings. Gaither says she remembers a time when she and her classmates had to walk more than a mile to her aunt's house, where there was a telephone, so that they could order coal.

Despite the hardship and injustices that Gaither and her schoolmates faced in an era many Americans would rather forget, she said she has only warm memories of her time at the Marley Neck School.

"It felt more like family," she said.

That is why, in 1999, a group of alumni and interested parishioners at the adjacent Hall United Methodist Church approached the county with hopes of renovating the school, which had fallen into disuse and disrepair four decades after integration rendered it obsolete.

Arundel Community Development Services helped Gaither, Henry and Johnson organize into a nonprofit capable of running the school as a community center, and managed the renovation project once it went forward.

The center received $200,000 from the county's allocation of federal community development block grants, $200,000 in state money, and $70,000 from the county.

While the school looks largely original from the front, complete with its old-fashioned water pump, a great deal of work went into bringing it up to modern standards, said Eric Woodruff of Sterling Construction Services.

"The structure was basically gutted," he said.

Construction workers added restrooms, electricity and central heating in the building, along with a ramp for disabled patrons out back. At the same time, they had to follow federal preservation standards, in keeping with the school's listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It's very dramatic," said Arundel Community Development Services Executive Director Kathleen M. Koch.

The school retains its original wood floors and wood trim. The exterior's light blue paint is an exact match to the school's original color, verified by testing chips from the wood siding. Photographs hanging in the front room tell the story of how it served the community in the past.

Marley Neck School is one of eight Rosenwald schools still standing in Anne Arundel County.

Koch said most of these are being renovated, including two that have been joined together in Shady Side.

The schools mark an important period in the county's history, she said, and the lengths the local black community went in the name of education.

"Education is an agent for change. Education is the ultimate equalizer," she said, adding, "These buildings are important to the African-American community. Therefore, they should be important to all of us."

Gaither hopes the school once again becomes an important part of the community, while paying homage to its past.

"I just want [people] to know that this was a school where there was a lot of love," she said.

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