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Willow Hill Center draws William James alums with new exhibit

Willow Hill Center draws William James alums with new exhibit

Willow Hill Center draws William James alums with new exhibit

Dr. Alvin Jackson, Willow Hill Herita...


One room of the historic Willow Hill School now preserves memorabilia of another of Bulloch County’s historic black schools and its namesake, Professor William James.

It marks the latest step by the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center Inc. to turn the old school near Portal into not just a community center, but also a museum of the region’s African-American heritage. After opening in 2011 with a room dedicated to Willow Hill School’s own history from the school’s founding by former slaves in 1874, the center in 2012 transformed another classroom into an exhibit on black Primitive Baptist churches, complete with pulpit and pews.

All three exhibits received visitors Saturday.

Willow Hill is “hallowed ground,” Dr. Alvin Jackson, the center’s president, told the 150 or so people attending breakfast.

“Willow Hill represents the African-American experience: just out of slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights era …,” Jackson said, “and this site will record and document the history of African-Americans and the greater community in Willow Hill, Bulloch County and those who left as part of the Great Migration looking for opportunities in the North and in the West.”

In all, about 250 people attended Saturday’s festival, organizers estimated.

Back from diaspora
Jackson himself represents the Great Migration legacy. A descendent of Willow Hill founders, he attended school there for grades one through eight before becoming one of the first black students enrolled at Statesboro High School in the 1960s. He went on to become a physician and has lived in Ohio since 1972, where his career included four years as state director of health. He and his wife, Dr. Gayle Jackson, still live in Ohio but visit Bulloch County regularly.

Another Willow Hill success story with an Ohio connection is that of Saturday’s breakfast speaker, Bishop Raleigh Lee Jr.

In his childhood, Lee sang with family members and friends as the Starlight Pilgrim Jubilees. The gospel group performed live on Statesboro radio station WWNS each Sunday morning for four years.

The family moved to Ohio in 1955. Lee attended Berean Bible Institute, Muskegon Bible Institute and, later, Bethel Bible College, where he received his doctorate. Now pastor of Mount Olive Holy Temple Church in Lincoln Heights, Ohio, he has been involved in establishing several churches.

Lee preached on “Legacy, Heritage and Inheritance.” He also sang, going a cappella for gospel numbers such as “Shepherd Boy” when a background recording failed.

Some of the William James High School alumni have returned to Georgia in retirement after careers in other states. For example, Roma Drummer, 70, lives in Register since returning in 1993 after 21 years as an officer with the New York Police Department.

Before William James High, Drummer attended Willow Hill Elementary -- not in the existing building, which was built in 1954, but at the previous wooden schoolhouse, which was across the road. He remembers coal stoves for heat and teachers who readily used corporal punishment to instill discipline.

He’s now reunion chairman for the William James High School Class of 1961. He and a classmate, Dr. Vera Richmond, 69, were wearing their class T-shirts at breakfast. The class had an initial get-together Friday night, then a banquet Saturday evening at the Marriott hotel in Statesboro before attending church together Sunday at Little Bethel Baptist in Brooklet.

Richmond, who has a Ph.D., and her twin sister, Glennera Martin, who earned a six-year education specialist degree, both had distinguished careers as educators. Richmond was working in Dallas when she retired. Both now live in Statesboro.
Martin was one of several people Jackson recognized publicly for helping gather items for the William James High School exhibit.

“It will allow people to reflect on our history, how rich it is, and then knowing what our forefathers did in the area of education, we can think what we can do now to pursue that,” Martin said.
Professor William James

Born in Washington County in 1872, William James earned a degree from Atlanta Baptist College, later Morehouse College. He also studied with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and became part of Washington’s movement to expand secondary education for African-Americans.

James arrived in Statesboro and became the first principal of City Colored School when it opened in 1907. The school was renamed repeatedly, becoming City Colored Industrial School and then Statesboro High and Industrial School.
James died in 1935, and the community renamed the school yet again, as William James High School, in 1948. It continued as Bulloch County’s high school for black students until court-ordered desegregation took effect in 1969. The new exhibit displays information about all principals of the school through 1969 and the names of more than 200 of its teachers.

Class photos, the words of the WJHS alma mater, yearbooks, textbooks and newspaper articles about the school and its founder are also included.

Sandra Mosley Kirkland was crowned Miss Willow Hill as an eighth-grader and thus rode the Willow Hill Junior High float in the 1967 William James High School homecoming parade. She then attended William James High as a ninth grader in the school’s final year, 1968-69, before going to the newly integrated Portal High School.

Now in her 30th year as a teacher, Kirkland teaches sixth-grade language arts at William James Middle School. Attending the dedication at Willow Hill, she noted that WJMS has its own exhibits about Professor James. The old high school also stands as the William James Educational Complex, home of the Bulloch County Board of Education. But Kirkland will encourage field trips to the Willow Hill site when possible, she said.

Volunteerism
The classroom that houses the new exhibit was one of several painted a month ago by incoming Georgia Southern University freshmen in the BUILD program. For 4-1/2 days over two weeks, two teams of 26 students cleaned, moved furnishings and painted at the Willow Hill Center.

“The BUILD students were a godsend,” said County Commissioner Ray Mosley, the chairman of the Willow Hill Center’s community advisory board. “The way the building looks today would not have been possible without them.”
Other GSU students in various courses of study are involved with projects such as planning a leadership program for middle school students proposed for Willow Hill in summer 2014. Another effort aims at preserving the one-room Bennett Grove School and eventually moving it to Willow Hill.

Gayle Jackson, the center’s development director, said that more than 1,000 volunteer hours have been applied to the center this year alone. She presented the center’s Humanitarian Award to Scott Hoover and the Nordson Corporation Foundation. At the request of Hoover, a Nordson Corporation engineer, the foundation supplied a $63,000 grant that paid for reroofing and installing fire and security alarms.

Ada Bell Lloyd and Tendai Haggins each received the center’s Renaissance Award for their work in making the festival possible each year.

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