It took on the appearance of a family reunion of sorts, or maybe a class reunion; perhaps an eighth-grade history class. However it was looked upon, the sixth annual Willow Hill Heritage Festival and Health Fair, held Saturday and Sunday at the Willow Hill School grounds near Portal, was two days of celebration steeped in cultural history and rich in memories of days gone by.
Now called the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, the building is part of the school system that was founded by former slaves in 1874. The brick building on a hill is the last of the six Willow Hill School buildings, the first being a small shack with one classroom. The last one was built in 1954 as an "equalization" school by the Bulloch County Board of Education.
Though the school closed for about a year after desegregation, it reopened eventually as an integrated school, and when it closed in 1999, it was the longest active school in existence in Bulloch County.
In 2005, the property went into an auction block, and direct descendents of the founding families decided to pool together and purchase the historic location.
One of those family members, Dr. Alvin Jackson, born in Portal and former Willow Hill School student, along with his wife, Dr. Gayle Jackson, were instrumental in preserving the school and establishing the festival. Most of that preservation was done long-distance from their home in Ohio, until moving back south in February of this year.
"Willow Hill is in my bones," Alvin Jackson said. "My mother went to school here; my grandmother went to school and taught here. My great grandfather, Benjamin Donaldson, was the only child of the family not born into slavery."
Members of the Donaldson, Hall, Parrish and Riggs families, former slaves who, for the most part, could not read or write, were passionate enough about making sure their children could be educated that they built the school.
Built for their children
Jackson remembers his relatives talking about Willow Hill for as long as he can remember.
"This is a link to the past," he said. "It is through their eyes and voice that I could travel back to the past.
"These grounds - I call them hallowed. I took on the responsibility of keeping the legacy alive."
And in that same spirit, Jackson and his wife sought a way to bring the community back together, "to enjoy each other and to look back at our heritage, what our ancestors have done, and look toward the future and have an impact and build a strong community."
From that idea, the festival was born six years ago. Former school members return annually, some traveling great distances. Mary Lee-Williams, who attended the school from 1945 to 1955, came from Cincinnati for the event. She went on to attend William James until moving to Ohio in the 12th grade.
"It's a great preservative of memories and legacy," she said.
Lummie LaShay Allen Baker came from Atlanta to reminisce about the school she attended from fourth through seventh grade in the mid- to late 1980s. Baker, who now works in the Atlanta school system, grew up only a half-mile from Willow Hill and sometimes drove to school when she was in seventh grade because "it was just half a mile, and we were in the country, and my father let me."
Hazel Lee Allen, who taught school at Willow Hill from 1962 to 1969, had a very short journey to the festival, as she still lives in the same brick house in which she was born.
"Six generations have gone through the farm," she said.
Remembering her childhood in the Willow Hill area with fondness, Allen said: "Everybody knew each other. Everybody looked out for each other. There was a lot of love."
The keynote speaker for the morning prayer breakfast, Larry Lee, reiterated that love for the community in his message. Lee was born in Statesboro but moved to Ft. Pierce, Florida, when he was 4.
"I failed the first grade (in Florida) because I was bullied," he said. "I came here to live with my grandmother and repeated first grade at Willow Hill."
Lee's other connection to the area came about when he taught in Screven County at Central Middle School and coached at the high school from 1976 to 1979. When he was elected to the Florida Legislature in 2012, he became the first black legislator from St. Lucie County.
"It's my dream one day that on a single day in America, in every city, we celebrate the rebirthing of community, that we get kids on a path of education, that we get kids to grow up and give back," he said.
"Before we become 'black Americans,' 'Asian Americans,' 'white Americans' - yes, we have to maintain our identity, but we gotta be Americans first.
"I always say, 'Never forget where you came from,' " Lee said.
That's actually a promise he made to God, he said, during his football days.
"I said to God, 'If you'll just allow me to become successful, I will remember where I came from. I'll help other people,' " he said.
Lee has made good on that promise in a number of ways, most recently through his initiative in Florida, one that he plans to implement in Bulloch County in the future, called "Restoring the Village," in which hundreds turned out to restore Avenue O, where he grew up in Florida.
Health and wellness
Besides the emphasis on history, legacy and faith with the breakfast on Saturday and gospel music on Sunday, the Willow Hill festival spotlighted health and wellness for the community, offering several free services and informative sessions for attendees.
Representatives from East Georgia Regional Medical Center brought a mobile unit to offer free medical assessments. Hearts and Hands Clinic provided information and resources about free and low-cost dental services. WellCare representatives were on hand, as were students from Georgia Southern's Public Health Student Association, and firefighters taught fire safety tips.
According to Dr. Moya Alfonso, professor in GSU's Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health, assessments in the recent past have shown disparities among children in Portal and Willow Hill and that many families struggle with diabetes, obesity, nutritional deficiencies and lack of physical activity.
Doctoral student Maria I. Olivas, coordinator for the health fair, said: "(The) Willow Hill community is invested in getting ... healthy and able to function. If the community has a hard time getting to the resources they need physically, then we can bring the resources to them, at least once a year."
A future hope for the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, besides the historical services it offers through the museum, is to use it as a medical clinic for the community.