As one of North Carolina’s 2,007 Century farms and 115 Bicentennial farms recognized by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Sauls Family Farm in Greene County has cemented its spot in the state’s agricultural fabric and history.
But the historical distinction doesn’t stop there. The farm is also the site of one of around 500 remaining Rosenwald schools in the South, built through a collaboration between famed African American educator Booker T. Washington; Julius Rosenwald, philanthropist and president of Sears Roebuck and Company; and community supporters who constructed the schools.
Rural Colored Schools, which were often in churches, were established in the mid to late 1800’s. The formalization of education in North Carolina began with the church and rural schools and garnered support from Washington, Rosenwald, The Phelps Stokes fund, Negro Committeemen and the State of North Carolina.
The schools were built to provide a better education to African American children and according to JoAnn Stevens, a descendent of the Sauls family, the Rosenwald school on the farm grew out of the Best Chapel Church school that had long educated African American members of the Contentnea community of which Stevens’ great-grandmother Annie Harris, served as a Mother of the Church.
“It gives our families a sense of pride to be a part of this family legacy, which has been maintained for so many years and then to have so many connections to so many different aspects of our history,” Stevens said.
Best Chapel School, which was built circa 1886 to 1915 (based on a geological map and survey), is one of the few elementary schools standing, along with the Zachariah School.
Nearly 5,000 Rosenwald schools were built in the rural South from 1917 to 1932. While Rosenwald grants were provided to help with building costs, and several architectural design options were provided by the Tuskegee Institute led by Washington, communities still had to raise funds for these modest schools and provide land for them to be built on, something that sometimes get lost in the story of these schools, Stevens said.
“It’s amazing how widespread the effort was, and the role African Americans played,” she said. “People think it was part of a social welfare program, but members of the African American communities raised money, donated land and built these schools,” because they recognized the opportunities education would provide long term.
“African American communities often put more into it than (Rosenwald) did,” which is something Rosenwald acknowledged. “It was important that he realized the importance of the efforts of African Americans to even make the schools happen. If the community had not come together to build the schools, it couldn’t have happened. They pooled their resources together to be able to bring about something so pivotal to the African American community and our nation’s history,” Stevens said.
North Carolina was home to 813 Rosenwald schools – more than any other state, but many have been lost or demolished over time, making them a rarity.
The Rosenwald school on the Sauls farm is one of five such schools built in Greene County. Two others that still exist in the county – the Zacariah School in Carrs Township and Snow Hill Colored High School in Snow Hill – are included on the National Register of Historic Places, according to a database compiled by the N.C. Historic Preservation Office.
While the exterior of the school on the Sauls farm remains largely as it was constructed, interior work over the years sectioned the building into smaller spaces to make it suitable for living. Those changes prevent it from being listed on the national register as-is, Stevens said, but she still sees the building continuing to lift-up the community and being a resource as a community center and gathering place.
Stevens is interested in preserving the school and making it part of a larger narrative that tells the full story of the African American experience in Eastern North Carolina, something she is championing with grants and through Congressional and state contacts.
She envisions it becoming a museum that can be “a catalyst and central point for rural North Carolina. I hope to uplift our story so local communities and governments see the value of these resources,” Stevens said.
With three Rosenwald schools remaining in Greene County, Stevens believes the area is well positioned to become a tourist attraction or part of a regional trail of historic African American sites.
“Today, the remaining schools are a visual representation of (what communities can accomplish when they come together,)” she added. “Our efforts are not just to uplift one or two, but to uplift the collaborative effort of the community. We can accomplish more when we work together.”
The historical significance of the school is not lost on Stevens, nor the larger impact the school made in the community and in educating generations of African American young people.
“Maybe we can be a model for other communities that have Rosenwald schools or rural colored schools,” she said. “They all played a role in the Civil Rights movement. Nationally there is interest in saving sacred spaces as well, wherein many schools got their start.”
The Rosenwald Center and community have hosted a Juneteenth Festival the past two years and will do so again this year on June 16-19, with outdoor and kids’ activities, vendors, a Juneteenth Fashion show, storytelling, music and more events planned.
“Our aspirations are probably big and seem out of this world. But a dreamer will continue to dream,” Stevens said. “We may not see them all fulfilled, but as we have taken up the baton of our forefathers to build upon their legacies, someone else will do the same to carry it on.”
Working to create a museum out of the school seems fitting for the Sauls Family’s Century Farm and family legacy involving agriculture and early educational opportunities for the African American community, Stevens said.
“I thank my Sauls cousins for seeing the vision and allowing me to pursue it. It shows their desire to carry on the legacy of their grandfather who is my great-great-grand Uncle.”