The rickety shell of the Bennett Grove School — Bulloch County's only known, extant one-room schoolhouse for black children from the long period when separate clearly wasn't equal — recently emerged from a thicket of bushes and small trees.
Seven students from the Georgia Southern University Anthropological Society, led by a couple of their teachers and assisted by a few community volunteers, cleared the vegetation in a morning.
This left the building leaning against a thin pine, as it has apparently done for years. Unpainted inside and out except for the door, the schoolhouse, built around 1918, never had electric lights or indoor plumbing. Using a bucket and pulley, children drew water from a still-existing shallow well. The two privies have vanished.
While larger, more-modern schools were built for white children in town, this building continued serving African-American children, who often walked to it along the dirt road in front, until 1952. Yet Doreatha Lester, 74, has fond memories from her school days at Bennett Grove in the late 1940s and looks forward to seeing it preserved and moved to the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center as a museum piece.
“It’s a part of our history and, yes, I do, so that the kids and the ongoing generations can see where we come from,” Lester said. “Yes, I’ll be glad about that.”
Archaeology and preservation
A married couple in the GSU Sociology and Anthropology Department faculty organized the cleanup day, which took place Nov. 9, in coordination with Willow Hill Center volunteers. Dr. Jared Wood is an assistant professor who teaches archaeology, a subfield of anthropology, and serves as adviser to the Anthropological Society. Inger Wood, an adjunct faculty member with a master’s degree in historic preservation, wrote the application that won a $2,000 Georgia Humanities Council grant for a special day for Bennett Grove in 2014.
Slated for Feb. 8, the program will begin on the Georgia Southern campus with expert talks on the history of the school — and African-American schools more generally — followed by a field trip to Willow Hill and Bennett Grove.
The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center Inc. — which operates in the former Willow Hill School — and the university are partners in the grant and the continuing Bennett Grove project. Bennett Grove now stands on private property, but the property owner has donated it to the Willow Hill Center for relocation to its campus.
“I think this is really a good project for joining with historic preservation folks, archaeology folks, historians, the Willow Hill group themselves,” Jared Wood said. “We can all contribute in different ways.”
Wood calls the Bennett Grove site an excellent candidate for archaeology and is especially interested in using lidar to scan the area. Lidar, which combines laser and radar principles, could produce three-dimensional computer models of the building and the ground around it.
“It’s so detailed you can see every little crack in the wood and every nail that’s in the wall. …” he said. “It’s a preservation snapshot. No matter what happens to this structure, we’ll know exactly what it looked like on that date.”
Excavation would also be possible in the footprint of the building after it is moved, he said. But he added that what gets done archaeologically depends on the wishes of the Willow Hill Center.
Another concern is stabilizing the building for preservation and a potential move, which is in Inger Wood’s area of specialization. She acknowledged that the buildings she has worked with in the past have been in better shape. But she believes that most of the siding boards can be saved, despite obvious effects of decades of weather. Some termite-damaged posts and beams are more likely to be replaced with new pine, she said.
“We’ll try to respect the historic integrity there, but we want to have it standing in better shape than it is now, so we will have to replace some of the pieces,” Inger Wood said. “We’ll try to be sensitive. It’s an important historic building.”
She is also interested in further documenting how the building was changed over the years. Even the 1918 date for the school’s construction is approximate, and she is also searching for photos of the school when it was in use.
GSU Anthropological Society members wielded bush loppers, rakes and gloved hands for the cleanup. The group’s president, senior Amanda Shively, 26, from Walton County, expressed surprise that such a one-room schoolhouse had been used as late as the 1950s. She said she was happy to be part of preserving it.
“Right now we have only been asked to help clean up,” Shively said. “If they ask us to do more with it, we will definitely lend our services.”
Benjamin Bennett, 1856-1941, founded the Bennett Grove School. The earliest identified teacher is Sally Tape Hall, circa 1920. The last teacher there was Susie Hylander, who served one month before the school closed, in October 1952. These facts were obtained from Dr. Alvin Jackson, the president of the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center Inc., and his wife, Dr. Gayle Jackson, the center’s development director.
Alvin Jackson has interviewed Bennett Grove alumni as part of the extensive collection of recorded oral history interviews he has been building during the past 18 years. Now totaling 800-1,000 hours, the Willow Hill School Oral Collection is being archived in the Henderson Library Special Collections at Georgia Southern.
The oldest person interviewed who attended Bennett Grove was Agnes Warner, 1911-2012, and Sally Tape Hall was one of her teachers.
Doreatha Lester, who lives near Portal, recalls that Bennett Grove had a single, long classroom. When she was a student there in the late 1940s, from first through fifth grades, as she recalls, her mother, Levanna Lester, sometimes served as a substitute teacher. The regular teacher, also listed as principal on a diploma from the era, was Veronica Young.
The youngest children sat around a table to one side of the teacher’s desk. Older primary students sat three each at bench-type desks to one side of the center aisle, and the upper grades on the other side, Doreatha Lester recalls. The benches were comfortable, she said.
There was a separate room in a corner of the otherwise one-room schoolhouse, Lester said. It was for book storage.
Lester, and her schoolmate Bernice Riggs Mosley, 76, who also lives in the Portal area, recall that a wood heater, which Mosley described as a pot-bellied stove, occupied the center of the room. Boys from the school would sometimes go out to cut firewood, but men in the community also brought wood.
“It kept us warm,” Mosley said.
From Bennett Grove, students of that period advanced to Willow Hill, and from there many went to William James High School. Mosley recalls there were about 20-25 students at Bennett Grove during a school year.
Although the Willow Hill School, founded in 1874, is an older institution, its current building was completed in 1954, the year the Supreme Court ruled the “separate but equal” segregation doctrine unconstitutional. That places it in the “equalization era,” when Southern school systems were belatedly attempting to provide more equitable facilities for black students.
Having the Bennett Grove School and the Willow Hill School on the same campus will provide a window into the history of African-American schools in Bulloch County, said Dr. Alvin Jackson.
“It tells the history of black education from the early 1900s through segregation and integration,” he said. It speaks to the power of education and how an enslaved people dreamed of a better world. It will give us an opportunity to show present and future generations how knowledge of the past is linked to hope for the future.”