Alumni of the historic Willow Hill School are planning the first Willow Hill Heritage Festival for Labor Day weekend, Sept. 3-4.
The event, on the school grounds, on Willow Hill Road off U.S. Highway 80 near Portal, will raise money for continued renewal of the campus as the Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center. With the unveiling of a historical marker, the festival will also spotlight the historical significance of the school, which was founded by former slaves in 1874.
After more than a century of evolution from family school to segregated African American public school to integrated elementary school, Willow Hill closed in 1999. A group of former students, many of them descendants of the founding families, purchased the existing building from the Bulloch County Board of Education in a 2005 auction.
Past & Future
Their hope is not only to preserve school and community history with the marker and an onsite museum, but also to create future uses for the campus in continuing education, community health and the arts.
"This school, this site, has a lot of history, going back to our ancestors, but also, this can be a center of a lot of things for the community itself," said festival chairperson Patricia Harden Willis. "One of the reasons I wanted us to start this festival was to bring some other types of activities to the community, and this is not just a one-year festival. The plan for this festival is for us to build on it from year to year."
Willis, who attended Willow Hill through fifth grade, now lives in Atlanta, where she is a business systems analyst with Turner Broadcasting. A recent planning committee meeting at Willow Hill included alumni from Ohio, Florida, Atlanta, Athens and Savannah, as well as Portal and Statesboro.
They are organizing a Saturday and Sunday festival that will include free health screenings and wellness exhibits as well as music, food, arts and crafts vendors, and a "Kids' Zone." But a ribbon cutting ceremony for the museum and the unveiling of the marker will be highlights, Willis said.
Willow Hill Center supporters are working with the Georgia Southern University Museum and Bulloch County Historical Society to obtain the historical marker. They are also seeking permission from state officials to place it on the Highway 80 right of way. If that doesn't work out, they will put it in front of the school instead.
Aspects of the festival, such as the varied music for Saturday and a gospel fest on Sunday, are still being worked out. The committee is seeking volunteers, vendors and sponsors. Five sponsorship levels, ranging from Heritage Patron for gifts less than $100 to Heritage Gold for a $1,000 donation, will be recognized in various ways. Information on giving is posted at www.willowhillheritage.org.
The Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center is organized as a nonprofit corporation. Proceeds will go to the upkeep and improvement of the building and for development of future programs, Willis said.
"This is a nonalcoholic, nonsmoking, green event," Willis said. "This is a family event, so we want all generations from grandparents down to babies to come to have fun."
Organizers also hope to draw a "multicultural" crowd. Although founded by African American families and kept segregated for decades when segregation was state and national policy, Willow Hill was integrated from 1970 onward.
Dr. Alvin Jackson, president of the Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center, notes that the school's history is a part of the history of America.
"Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center really wants to tell the story that hasn't been told," Jackson said. "All of the history of Bulloch County, all of the history of Georgia, all of the history of America hasn't been told. There are many, many untold stories, and the untold stories are, too, a part of who we are as a people."
Jackson attended Willow Hill from first grade through eighth before becoming one of the first African American students at Statesboro High School during the partial integration phase in the 1960s. He became a medical doctor and has lived in Ohio since 1972, where his career recently included four years as that state's director of health.
But over the years Jackson has come home to Bulloch County many times, recording oral history from firsthand accounts by older black citizens and compiling a large collection of obituaries and other primary documents. He hopes to make his collection available through the museum at Willow Hill.
Defining Their Destiny
As a young teenager, his oldest daughter, now Dr. Nkenge Jackson-Flowers, won a 1988 National History Day prize, awarded in Washington, D.C., with research on the history of the school. Her father had suggested the topic. They both also contributed extensively to Dr. F. Erik Brooks' book, "Defining their Destiny: The Story of the Willow Hill School."
The book counts Willow Hill as one of 41 African American schools that operated in Bulloch County from Reconstruction until the end of segregation. It was one of the first, and the founding date of 1874 means that Willow Hill predated the first white public schools in the county by a year, although there were older church and family schools.
"Nine years after the Civil War, our ancestors, who could not read and write themselves, clearly understood the value of an education as families banded themselves together to create the Willow Hill School," Jackson said.
The school's first building was a turpentine shanty on the property of Dan Riggs, whose niece Georgiana Riggs was its first teacher. Founding families included the Riggs, the Parrishes, the Halls and Jackson's ancestors, the Donaldsons. It wasn't until 1920, when the Bulloch County Board of Education paid the families $18 for the property, that Willow Hill became a public school.
The Cross Burning
Over the years, Willow Hill played a role not only in the history of local education, but in the broader history of civil rights. In 1946, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the school grounds while black citizens met inside, planning to vote in the next day's state election. Nevertheless, many went to the polls, asserting that right in Bulloch County for the first time in 50 years.
The existing building was built in 1954, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. But Bulloch County, and many other Southern school districts, took more than 15 years to integrate, doing so only under specific federal court orders.
With their $112,000 bid plus other expenses, supporters of the Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center paid $124,000 to reclaim the school in 2005. Since then, they have had a well dug, replaced windows and recently made repairs and installed security measures after burglars attacked the air conditioners in search of copper.
"There is a lot that still needs to be done," Jackson said.