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Preserving the old to celebrate the new: ECSU to create African-American Heritage Center


 The Rosenwald Practice School at what is now Elizabeth City State University, circa 1925. The school was constructed in 1921 with $1,000 and was used to train local, black students to become teachers. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth City State University Archives. 

Elizabeth City State University announced this week it will convert one of its historical buildings into an African-American Heritage Center.

Starting in the 1920s, one of many Rosenwald Schools was established on the university’s campus. The schools trained students to be teachers and were a vital part of the Black community. 

Since the beginning of desegregation, Rosenwald Schools all over the South began to fall into disuse and disrepair, but ECSU continued to use its facility as a chicken coop, a cosmetology school, a daycare center and now as the ROTC building.

Wanda McLean, a former ECSU administrator, first brought up the idea to restore the Rosenwald school in 2016 to ECSU Chancellor Thomas Conway. ECSU recently brought in experts from HistoriCorps, a group specializing in restoring historical sites, to give recommendations, but the school is also involving the entire student body in the process.

Russell Haddad, special assistant to the chancellor at ECSU, said the school wants to supplement the resources it already has.

“If there is anyone out there who had relatives who attended or had artifacts from when it was a thriving Rosenwald school, we’d love to hear from them,” he said. “The oral histories up to the physical artifacts, we’d love to get those inventories.”

ECSU took on the project to preserve American history, particularly history important to the African-American community.

“As an HBCU in the area, we thought it was our role to lead,” Haddad said. “The region has a history that is not being told to a wider audience.”

ECSU hopes restoring the facility and continuing to use it for educational purposes can bring the campus and the community closer together and become an economic driver.

“It’s going to provide the community a central place to begin to remember and interpret the history of the University in its relationship with our region,” said Melissa Stuckey, an African- American history assistant professor at ECSU.

One of the partners for the project is the Elizabeth City Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, which Haddad said means the Rosenwald school could become an attraction that will drive tourism and the local economy.

“With other African-American sites in the region, it can really become something that people want to come and see,” Haddad said.

Charles Reed, a history professor at ECSU, said preserving the history of education by restoring the Rosenwald school should be especially important in North Carolina.

“Education is such an important part of African-American groups and struggles throughout this narrative of American history,” he said. “This gives us an opportunity to tell a larger story about that and understand how African-Americans in this part of North Carolina sought and used education to make what came later possible.”

Rosenwald schools are rare. A combination of society favoring modernization and the expenses associated with maintaining the schools makes them vulnerable.

Not only is it rare that ECSU has a Rosenwald school, but the building was also continuously used after it stopped being used as a practice school – highlighting the resilience of the community.

“The African-American community didn’t have the resources to build another building when a new program came about, so they had a structure that was well built and they continued to use it,” McLean said.

The main driver of the project is preserving Rosenwald schools so current and future generations may understand the role they played in American history and creating a culture that values these contributions.

The project is still in its planning phase, Haddad said. ECSU is still trying to figure out costs and how to restore the facility, but the impact it will have once it is completed is already clear.

“It has potential to bring the campus together as we redefine ourselves,” Stuckey said. “That redefinition is about embracing our incredible past.”


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Anna Pogarcic

Anna Pogarcic is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. She is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying journalism and history major. 

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