Tuesday, 17 February 2009
Originally published June 17, 2001 in the Columbia Daily Tribune.
By BRIAN KALLER
FULTON, MISSOURI — A dusty Super Bowl trophy sits behind glass in the hallway of George Washington Carver School — a gift from New York Giants star Tony Galbreath, who once sat in the school’s tiny desks. The school’s halls are lined with faded photographs, trophies and mementos of generations of black residents - and many of the white residents who attended the school during the 14 years it was desegregated.
But near the trophy case, the plaster has fallen in wet chunks onto the floor and the light fixtures hang at odd angles. Many of the windows are broken. The paint is peeling. The plumbing doesn’t work. The school has fallen on hard times.
Several prominent members of the community - black and white - formed a board, which bought the building from the Fulton school district in 1989 and tried to raise money to restore it. But while the board of the renamed George Washington Carver Memorial and Culture Center has made some repairs, set up a museum about Carver inside and sometimes leads tours of the building, the restoration has a long way to go. Last spring, the not-for-profit Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation placed the school on its list of the 10 most endangered historic sites in Missouri.
"We had all this set up as a black history room, and then the ceiling collapsed in here because of water damage," said board president James Galbreath, an alumnus of the school and Tony Galbreath’s half brother. "We had kids that broke some of the windows and hailstorms that broke some of the others."
Board member Henry Logan points to a faded brown baseball uniform on the lower shelf, his jersey in the Negro Baseball Leagues. Alongside the Vince Lombardi trophy, other awards mark the names of Cardinals baseball star Arnold "Bake" McBride and other sports stars and community leaders who graduated from the school.
Community volunteers have made many repairs over the past several years, always striving for historical accuracy - Logan said he even used the 1930s mortar recipe of sand and quicklime to patch the bricks. The roof was repaired three weeks ago, a measure that should stop further water damage. But the school still needs numerous repairs, and Galbreath estimates it will cost $400,000 to finish the job.
Former board member Warren Hollrah said the building has been saved so far because it does not sit on coveted land like the recently demolished Fulton City Hall, but condemnation has always been a possibility.
The board has had numerous fund-raisers to help pay for repairs. Members have had bake sales and asked alumni for donations, for which their names are engraved on bricks. But bricks and bake sales are only small steps to a big goal. And while board members have volunteered hundreds of hours of time and labor to the restoration, most are in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
Sixteen-year-old Erica Long, who lives across from the school, said she remembers performing inside the school but that people active in the restoration are "mostly older people in the neighborhood." She said many of the young people in the neighborhood don’t even know there’s a museum inside; older residents tour the building during the day, but "at night kids come out and throw rocks at the windows."
While some only remember him during Black History Month, George Washington Carver was one of America’s true geniuses. Born a slave in Diamond Grove near the Oklahoma border and raised in poverty, he became a scientist, inventor, businessman, painter and author.
His botanical research developed more than 500 patents for products such as glue, synthetic rubber, shoe polish, shaving cream, linoleum and ink from common plants like soybeans and peanuts, - the source of his best-known invention, peanut butter.
"He would go to conventions, and because of the racial laws of the time, he would have to eat in the kitchen while everyone was dining in the convention hall," Hollrah said. "But then he would come out to speak and would hold the audience spellbound."
In 1937, the city tore down the Old North School that had served the black area for decades and used some of the bricks to make a new school. Westminster College president and Fulton school board member Franc McCluer invited the 78-year-old Carver to come and dedicate the new school in his name.
Some of the older members of the community remember Carver’s visit. Board member Jean Davis said she was in eighth grade when Carver arrived. She sat in the front row when he spoke to students at the opening. Fulton NAACP president Jack McBride said he not only saw Carver speak that day, but also helped him pick local hedge apples.
"He looked a long time at the hedge trees on the school grounds, and our local coal and fire clay, and thought he could make something interesting out of it," Logan said. "But he died shortly afterwards."
Hollrah ranks Carver’s visit with that of Winston Churchill in Fulton history.
"He was renowned not just in the African-American community, but around the world," he said. "The Soviet Union tried to recruit him to come over there; that’s how influential he was."
Hollrah and others envision the Carver school as a major tourist attraction to complement the nearby Churchill Memorial, the Callaway Historical Society, the Missouri School for the Deaf museum and the Auto World Museum.
"As someone involved in museums and tourism, I see great potential for this site," Hollrah said. "People in the tourism industry have often found that African-Americans travel more than whites, for family reunions and things like that. And this could be a major draw. Carver only came here for a week, but Winston Churchill only came here for a day, and look what that has done for the town," he said. With the right marketing, he said half-jokingly, "we could be bigger than Branson."
The Carver school was the black grade school for decades, and black students who attended high school took the bus 30 miles to Jefferson City. When Fulton grade schools desegregated in 1968, the school became the citywide fifth grade, then the sixth grade. The last classes there were in 1982, after which it was used it for storage.
The community push to restore the aging building began in the late 1980s, founding board president Steve Moore said. He said early banquets and fund-raisers drew notable figures, including East St. Louis mayor Carl Officer and then-state Rep. Jet Banks, D-St. Louis. The school district sold the school to the board for $11,000 - a generous deal for a structure appraised at $56,000, Moore said.
"We was on a good roll at one time," Moore said.
But as constant repairs and maintenance became an ongoing headache, he said, board members "got burnt out."
"I don’t sense the enthusiasm that was there at the beginning," Callaway prosecuting attorney and former Carver board member Robert Sterner said. "It’s languished."
Moore is disappointed that younger people, black and white, don’t appreciate the history of their area.
"In school we used to learn a censored version of history, but at least we learned history," he said. "Some of these kids are shocked to find out about George Washing-ton Carver; they don’t know who he was."
Some also blame internal conflicts over issues such as whether to make the school a black history museum, a community center or a tourist attraction. Early members like Moore, Hollrah and Sterner have left the board and say groups within the black community and the larger community do not always work together as they should. Sterner, who is white, notes that he is the only veteran of both the Carver board and the NAACP.
"I think when a group has some funds, people are motivated to sit down and work together to decide what to do with those funds," Sterner said. "But when you have to make a choice between whether the roof will leak or the heat will work, people can get bogged down in the minutiae; it puts a strain on people."
But board members have not been idle, and they say the building’s future looks brighter. The roof was fixed with a grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, a grant written by Logan’s daughter Marian and son Angelo.
Board treasurer Arneda Logan, Henry’s wife, said the brick-donation program has been successful, raising $5,000 in five months. Callaway County officials donated two furnaces for the building last year, so the building has heat again for the first time in years. The school also drew attention when it was placed on the list of endangered historic sites - the only such site in Central Missouri and the only black history site.
On May 14, Marian Logan spoke about the Carver school before an audience of about 600 people at the state Capitol, Arneda Logan said.
The state’s first lady, Lori Hauser Holden, introduced Marian as part of the state’s ceremony to kick off National Historic Preservation Week.
Hollrah, a tourism entrepreneur who is also on the board of the Missouri Alliance of Historic Preservation, and Angelo Logan, who works for the state historical society, pushed for the school to be placed on the endangered list.
For the restoration volunteers, the school represents many things. It is a storehouse of childhood memories that, Henry Logan said, are "something you can’t buy for all the money in the world."
It is one of the remaining historic buildings in a neighborhood where, residents complain, other such sites have been torn down. It is the only black history site in a town with a history of racial tensions.
Finally, the school was the heart of this neighborhood, which has increasingly been hit by unemployment and crime.
"Everybody who could really help the neighborhood gets out, and everybody else stays," Logan said. "Nobody stays if they go to college or anything, they can’t get the work here."
Logan hopes a restored school cannot only draw tourism, but also be a foundation on which the community can be repaired, a place that would bring the generations and the school’s scattered graduates together.
"If we could only get together everybody who went through this school, we’d have a tremendous group of people," he said.
Photo of George Washington Carver courtesy of the Tuskeegee Archives.