Organizers have no firm timeline for the restoration and move but are beginning fundraising efforts. Gifts to the Bennett Grove Project are tax-deductible and may be sent to the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center; P.O. Box 60277; Savannah, GA 31420.
Through efforts of the Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center and Georgia Southern University, plans are gathering steam to restore and relocate the Bennett Grove School, Bulloch County’s only remaining one-room African-American schoolhouse.
A Feb. 8 symposium on the “Past, Present and Future of the Bennett Grove School” drew participants to three different locations. Starting with speakers in the GSU College of Education Auditorium, the day’s events continued with the opening of an exhibit at the Willow Hill Center and concluded with a field trip to the Bennett Grove schoolhouse on a dirt road near Portal.
“Bennett Grove is one of the last landmarks of African-American education,” Dr. Alvin Jackson, the Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center president, told participants. “I challenge all of you to work with me to save this great treasure.”
Benjamin Bennett, who was born in slavery, founded the Bennett Grove School around 1918, and the existing building dates from that time. In one sense, it’s newer than the Willow Hill School, which was founded by former slaves in 1874, nine years after the conclusion of the Civil War. But the existing Willow Hill building, now home of the Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center, dates from 1954.
The Bennett Grove School remained in use until 1952. After that, children who would have walked to it were transported to the Willow Hill School.
Last November, Georgia Southern Anthropological Society students and community volunteers cleared vegetation from around the Bennett Grove School. This left the rickety wooden building leaning to one side, as it has apparently done for years, while awaiting further work. It is now on private property but has been donated by the owner.
Volunteers hope to stabilize the building and move it to the Willow Hill campus to serve as a schoolhouse museum.
Members of the Bennett family, as well as some former Bennett Grove students, came to the symposium. In all, about 70 people attended the program at the university, and a similar number turned out for the exhibit opening at Willow Hill.
Georgia’s historic one-room schoolhouses are dwindling in number, and those that served African-American children are especially rare, according to Jeanne Cyriaque from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division. Of 40 or so one-room schoolhouses standing statewide, perhaps 12–15 were for African-Americans, she said. Cyriaque is the state’s preservation coordinator for structures important to the history of African-Americans in Georgia.
As the symposium’s guest speaker, she presented a slide show of one-room schools around the state, including some that are being preserved by churches and community groups, and others that have fallen down or deteriorated despite initial preservation efforts.
Showing photos of the Bethlehem Baptist Church School at Pine Mountain Valley in western Georgia, Cyriaque noted that it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In fact, the building, similar in size to Bennett Grove, had been added to the register in 2008. Cyriaque talked about volunteers’ intentions to preserve the Bethlehem School, then delivered a shocking ending.
“When the National Register looked at the school, we kind of warned them that if a roof was not put on the building, they would probably lose the structure,” Cyriaque said. “They were unsuccessful in doing that. So last January, I went to the site and, sadly, the school was no longer there.”
Other schoolhouses Cyriaque talked about have happier stories. For example, the previously threatened Harrington School in Glynn County is now owned by the St. Simons Land Trust. Cyriaque said supporters are raising $250,000 to preserve it and are about one-third of the way there.
One undercurrent of her presentation was that placing a school on the National Register of Historic Places will not, in itself, preserve it.
“The National Register is only recognition by our nation that this is an important, historic place,” Cyriaque said in an interview. “Where the preservation part of that comes in is, after you’re designated, it puts groups, typically nonprofits, in a better position with funders to get grants and that sort of thing.”
Some state programs to fund preservation efforts, such as the Heritage Grant Program, have been eliminated due to budget cuts.
“So most of my division’s preservation money is channeled through our certified local governments, of which Statesboro is one, and they can apply for projects in their region,” Cyriaque said. “That’s a way to partner.”
For now, the established partnership for the Bennett Grove School is between the Willow Hill Center and Georgia Southern. They received a $2,000 grant from the Georgia Humanities Council for the symposium.
Inger Wood, a historic preservation consultant and GSU Sociology and Anthropology adjunct faculty member, wrote the grant proposal. She spoke about the work done so far and plans for the Bennett Grove School. Other speakers included Georgia Southern Museum Director Dr. Brent Tharp and Dr. Michael Van Wagenen from the university’s History Department.
The school’s current tin roof is not original, but it has held the building together and may be responsible for its survival, Wood said. One-room schools with wood-shingle roofs tended to fall apart.
Moving the schoolhouse, while not ideal from a preservation perspective, will allow it to be preserved in a place accessible to the public, Wood said. The move, she added, will also expose the ground underneath for archaeological work.
Relocating the building will not necessarily disqualify it from listing on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Cyriaque.
“Obviously, people don’t like you to move historic structures, but in some cases when the building is endangered, as this school is currently, there are criteria that you can use to make a case, and they have had buildings listed that were moved,” she said.
The exhibit at the Willow Hill Center consisted of graphics and text about Bennett Grove students and teachers, a typical school day, a timeline of the school’s existence, the inequality of segregated schools and other historical context. When the schoolhouse is moved and ready, the graphic display and other items will be exhibited inside it, Jackson said.
Although the exhibit featured photos of students and teachers, there were none of the interior or exterior of the school from its active years. Wood asked that anyone who knows of a photo of the Bennett Grove School when it was in use contact her or the Willow Hill Center.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.