Southeast Texas group works to save old black schoolhouses

JASPER – Fifty years ago, a teacher in a one-room Jasper County schoolhouse faced a class full of rural African-American children and issued a challenge.

“Everyone of you is going to college,” Viola Tukes told them.

Some of those students did go to college, while others, like Jesse Woods, took the first good-paying job they could find. But in the small school, situated in the Rock Hill community between Kirbyville and Jasper, students were given an education and opportunities that barely existed for previous generations.

“I’ve seen some good times in Rock Hill,” said Woods, 62, whose father never learned to read or drive a car. Woods attended the Rock Hill school in the 1950s.

The schoolhouse was built in the 1920-21 school year through the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which supplied funding and architectural planning for 5,300 African-American schools from 1912 to 1932.


In 1912, African-American schools, educator Booker T. Washington involved Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., in building schools in the South.

Through the fund, Rosenwald gave money, often about one-third of construction costs, and blueprints to communities to build schools.

States or school districts paid some construction costs, along with donations from the black community.

The Rosenwald schools represent a great educational leap for black families throughout the rural South, said Herman Wright, 56, whose family roots in Jasper County go back to the 1800s.

Wright hopes to preserve the Rock Hill school as a visible link to recent history.

“They built these schools in order to get their kids to this” stage of education Wright said at the Rock Hill school Thursday.

Progressive architects provided innovative plans for the small schools that advanced teaching methods and created a positive learning environment for rural schools that likely did not have electricity, according to a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Of the thousands of campuses built by the Rosenwald Fund, only a few hundred are thought to remain.

The Rock Hill school was built according to architectural design No. 1-A, a narrow school built to face the north and features a low-pitched, gabled tin roof. Covered with overlapping shiplap-style siding made of local pine, the school was originally painted white but is now brown.

It cost $1,800 to construct, according to the Rosenwald Database at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

Tukes, his teacher, was a graduate of what was then called the Prairie View A&M State Normal and Industrial College and took her job seriously.

“She was real tough,” Woods said. “If you didn’t get your lesson, she’d whup you and then she’d send you home – and they’d whup you, too.”

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