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National preservation group visits Willow Hill
Willow Hill - National Trust W
Bettie Murchison, the founder of the North Carolina Rosenwald Schools Coalition, and her husband, James Murchison, view exhibits at the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center. About 30 historic preservation leaders from various states visited Willow Hill as a field site Friday during the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2014 convention in Savannah. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

About 30 participants in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2014 national conference in Savannah visited the historic Willow Hill School near Portal on Friday as an example of preservation for new uses.

They saw the museum exhibits and collections and learned of the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center's plans, with help from partner organizations such as Georgia Southern University, to develop a full-time community center providing health and education services. They also glimpsed the beginning of "The Arts at Willow Hill," serving up dinner theater in the cafetorium.

Jeanne Cyriaque, the coordinator of African-American programs in the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Historic Preservation Division, Willow Hill Center President Dr. Alvin Jackson and his wife, Dr. Gayle Jackson, the center's development director, served as guides.

"This is one of my best examples of an adaptive reuse equalization school in Georgia," said Cyriaque, starting Friday's tour at the state historical marker she had helped dedicate on Aug. 30.

African-American families nine years out of slavery, in 1874, established the original Willow Hill School in a turpentine shanty. The term "equalization school" refers to the current building, erected in 1954, the year that the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Brown v. Board of Education ruling, overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine. Georgia and other Southern states had belatedly begun building new schools for black students to prove that equal facilities could be provided under segregation, continuing into the 1960s.

Cyriaque explained that she obtained a Georgia Natural Resources Foundation grant to place historical markers at three exemplary equalization schools. One, at Watkinsville, is still in use as a school. Another marker, yet to be erected, will recognize "a school which has used all the tools of preservation," she said.

But Willow Hill, with its emerging identity as a community center, represents adaptive reuse. In one of several projects that have involved Georgia Southern University students, interior design students drew up plans for preserving a section of the Willow Hill School as classrooms and museum space while adapting another portion for new uses.

"We're looking at a potential clinic here, and also looking at one side as being the historic side and the other one being entrepreneurial in terms of how do we expand and how we can create income in terms of sustainability for the kinds of things that we're doing," Alvin Jackson said.

In other words, the Willow Hill Center's board hopes to lease space to other organizations and use the income to help maintain the building and expand community services.

Another arm of GSU, the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health, helped the Willow Hill Center with a needs assessment in the community, as Gayle Jackson told the tour group seated for lunch.

"This area has no doctors, no pharmacy, and so when individuals need medical help they have to find ways to get to Statesboro," she said. "Transportation is a big issue here."

Dinner theater

The taste of "The Arts at Willow Hill" Friday was a sample of "The Aaron Munlin Story," being developed by Georgia Theater Hall of Fame inductee Mical Whitaker. His source is the autobiography of Elder Aaron Munlin, 1848-1911, who grew up in slavery and later as a free man in 1879 became one of the founders of Banks Creek Primitive Baptist Church.

Whitaker, the director of the youth theater at the Averitt Center for the Arts, is now serving also as artistic director for "The Arts at Willow Hill." This new effort, which Whitaker said will be mainly a theater company, is not affiliated with the Averitt Center, but he hopes to foster cooperation between them.

"We have the beginnings," he said, noting the lights set up to illuminate the Willow Hill stage. "We're just starting. And it will be a dinner theater."

Completing "The Aaron Munlin Story" for a full performance may take about a year, Whitaker said. Banks Creek Primitive Baptist Church choir members provide a cappella singing for the show.

He foresees other plays celebrating rural communities and the experiences of African-Americans.

"So it's bigger than Willow Hill. I think this is a national statement, actually," Whitaker said.

The bus was also scheduled to carry the tour group to Portal to hear about its history in cotton and turpentine production and by the one-room Bennett Grove School and the Banks Creek Church.

The National Preservation Conference is held in a different city each year. About 2,000 preservationists were expected for this year's in Savannah, according to the National Trust's website. The event ran from Tuesday through Friday.

Each day brought a choice of several tours. Participants from Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia and North Carolina self-identified on the tour at Willow Hill, but Cyriaque said there were others from as far as Colorado and Rhode Island.

Smithsonian connection

Deborah L. Mack, associate director for community and constituent services at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., also made the trip. A part of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum has offered programs and touring exhibitions since 2006, and its building near the Washington Monument is scheduled to open in 2016.

She noted that the Willow Hill Center is part of the Association of African American Museums and that its leaders gave a presentation for the annual conference in August.

Prior to her Smithsonian work, Mack visited the Willow Hill site in 2007, when it was an old school owned by a community group but with no programs or exhibits. The lights weren't even on, she said.

"You can never do this by yourself, so having the university and actually a number of organizations work in collaboration with them is just the smartest thing they could have done," Mack said. "I think within a couple of years you're going to see something that even physically looks very different. They're at that launching point."

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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