Designing a community dream together
|Above: Rose P. Allen, a member of Citizens United to Preserve the Greensville County Training School and a 1944 graduate, talks with fourth-year architecture student Suzanne Palmer about her proposed design scheme to preserve the African-American landmark. Inset, left: Professor Craig Barton, who is spearheading U.Va.’s participation in the project.
By Jane Ford
Emporia, Va. — On a crisp October morning, Rose Allen greeted a group gathered at the Royal Baptist Church by quoting Langston Hughes:
“First in the heart is the dream -
Then the mind starts seeking a way. …
Then the hand seeks other hands to help,
Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream. …
Belonging to all the hands who build.”
Allen and members of Citizens United to Preserve the Greenville County Training School have worked since 2000 to sustain and give new life to the Emporia community landmark. They know the value of working together for a common goal.
The alumni group’s guests in the church that day were 10 fourth-year U.Va. students from architecture professor Craig Barton’s design studio who have spent the semester developing design strategies and ideas to revitalize the Training School.
The school was built in 1929 with funding provided by the Rosenwald School Fund, a philanthropic project of Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears Roebuck & Company. The fund’s goal was to improve educational opportunities for African Americans living in the South and Southwest. During the years of racial inequality before school integration, more than 5,000 schools were built with support from the fund.
“The emphasis for blacks was on manual training for jobs,” Allen said. “The area always has had cloth and box mills and some industry.”
“For the students, the project is an opportunity to examine the connections among architectural design, local history and community development,” Barton said. An authority on preservation and interpretation of African-American cultural landmarks, Barton has worked on projects with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Park Service and the National Voting Rights Museum.
“The project strikes a balance between the goals and curriculum of the Architecture School’s departments,” Barton said. “It brings together the ideas and interests of the combined department of architecture and landscape architecture with architectural history and preservation.”
The idea for the student project stemmed from Barton’s work with the Citizens United group on an ongoing oral history project funded through U.Va.’s Carter G. Woodson Center for African-American Studies and the Center for the Student of Local Knowledge.
There is a growing interest in preserving black landmarks, Barton said. “The power of the built landscape to evoke history and memory of place is tremendous. A project like this one not only commemorates this building and those who attended school there, but also represents a larger historical chapter in the development of our society.”
The school is an important chapter in the community’s local history and played a vital role in educating the African Americans in Emporia. For many years, it also was the focus of social activities for those in the Greenville County area.
“It was the only location blacks had for large gatherings outside the churches,” said Joe Green, a Citizens United member. “It’s where we had all the cultural activities, plays and sports.”
Frances Carter, a member of the preservation group, fondly remembers May Day celebrations at the school. “Students from schools far out in the county would come to town, and we would play games — sack races, potato run — and we’d have a May pole. It was an occasion for people to share their talents, and there was also food, food and more food.”
After a few years, the community chose to add a building for basketball.
“The community built that,” Green said. “The African-American community did not have indoor sports facilities, so the community worked together and built that structure.”
Many of the Rosenwald-funded schools have vanished. Others have been successfully saved and have been reclaimed for adaptive reuse, such as affordable housing and community centers, Barton noted.
At a September meeting the architecture students toured the site, studied the building and listened as the Emporia alumni shared their goals for the building, which is beginning to deteriorate after years of vacancy. The preservation group envisions three major themes for the project: a museum or interpretive aspect that would commemorate the significance of the building to the community; an educational center to serve a wide range of needs, including: English as a Second Language programs for the children in the growing Hispanic population in the area and vocational training that would provide workers for local businesses and industry; and as a gathering place for the community.
Those goals provided a guide for the students. The design strategies they presented to the alumni group ranged from restoring the entire building to leaving the outline of the foundation in an effort to recall the physical presence of the old building and creating new structures and community spaces.
Karen Liu’s project features space for classrooms, a library and a memorial walk that runs through the site.
Suzanne Palmer envisions a marketplace where the community can gather on Saturdays to sell their produce.
Alexandra Lotz focused her project on bringing the past, present and future together. In her design, she added an auditorium to the existing structure, created an exhibition space to display Civil Rights history and works community members would create at a planned cultural center, and incorporated classrooms and a child care facility.
Other student concepts included theaters, cafés, a plaza for outdoor activities and an area for picnics.
The plans presented and the opportunity to exchange ideas energized the Citizens United alumni group, who are simultaneously exploring fundraising strategies for the project.
Barton’s class returned in November to share more detailed plans with the preservation group and local officials. Members of Citizens United will visit Charlottesville on Dec. 14 to see the students present their final design schemes.
“The project is an opportunity for the students to collaborate with a community to realize and visualize their dream for this cultural landscape,” Barton said.