The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center will open its Black History Month activities with a public showing of the reconstructed Bennett Grove School, Bulloch County’s last one-room schoolhouse for African American children, 2 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11.
Outdoors on the grounds of the Willow Hill Center, 4235 Willow Hill Road, near Portal, the presentation will be accessible live, both on Facebook and in-person. See the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center page, where the video should also remain for later viewing.
“We’ll talk about the history of the school, and Mr. Ozell Lawrence, who was a student at Bennett Grove – he’s quite a storyteller – plans to attend,” said Dr. Gayle Jackson, development director for the Willow Hill Center.
After Friday’s presentation, further Black History Month events organized by the Willow Hill Center will occur on the Saturdays of the following two weeks.
The “If These Cemeteries Could Talk” series of tours of the 34 known African American cemeteries in Bulloch County will resume with a walk through the Summer Hill Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery on Saturday, Feb. 19 at 9 a.m.
Then a public tour of the Willow Hill Museum and grounds, Saturday, Feb. 26 at 1:30 p.m. will cap the month’s activities.
The Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center itself occupies the final building of the historic Willow Hill School, founded in 1874 by formerly enslaved people for their children. But the original building disappeared long ago, and the masonry and metal structure that today houses the museum and community center was an “equalization school” facility built in 1954. Ironically, that was the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court in its Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision ruled the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional. Georgia and other Southern states belatedly built improved, more modern school buildings for Black students while continuing segregation for well over a decade longer.
After Bulloch County’s public schools were desegregated circa 1970, Willow Hill operated as a elementary school for students of all races until 1999, when it closed as, at that time, the county’s longest continuously operated school site.
But the Bennett Grove School, established around 1918 as a private family school by former slave Benjamin Bennett (1856-1941), survived later in its original building. The one-room, mostly unpainted wooden schoolhouse never had indoor plumbing or electrical lighting.
After becoming part of Bulloch County’s public school system, the Bennett Grove School remained in use, in this primitive condition, as an elementary school for Black children until 1952. Students who completed seventh grade at Bennett Grove would graduate to the Willow Hill Junior High School.
The rickety Bennett Grove schoolhouse was still standing on its original grounds, among bushes and trees along a country road northeast of Portal, when Georgia Southern University sociology and anthropology students and faculty members helped with a cleanup and research in 2013-2014. But the building was already leaning noticeably, and it later fell over before plans to stabilize it or move it intact to the Willow Hill Center could be realized.
Still, a group of community volunteers that included Keith Wilkey, Leon Carr and Charlie Carr helped dismantle the ruined building, Jackson said. The salvaged timbers were cataloged and transported to the Willow Hill campus.
More recently, Rondie Lundy, who works for the Willow Hill Center as the handyman for its building and grounds, led a volunteer effort to rebuild the Bennett Grove schoolhouse. Others who have helped include Tommy Holloway, Portal-area woodworker Jamie Hagins and Vincent Flowers, son-in-law of Jackson and her husband, the Willow Hill Center’s board president, Dr. Alvin Jackson.
Wood obtained by dismantling two old barns on a neighboring property was used to replace original boards from the school that were damaged beyond use.
A replica shallow well and outhouse toilet, not functional but representing those that served the original school, have been added near the reconstructed building. It was nearly finished Friday, with the volunteers now installing a tin roof.
“We will have it out there as a memorial to all of the one-room schoolhouses that used to be in Bulloch County,” said Dr. Gayle Jackson, who grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. “It just amazes me that they had a one-room school house operating in the early 1950s with no running water and no electricity.”
But Dr. Alvin Jackson grew up here and had family members among the founders of both the Willow Hill School and the Bennett Grove School.
He plans to be back in the role of oral historian for the resumption of Willow Hill’s “If These Cemeteries Could Talk” series, with the tour of the Summer Hill Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, 9 a.m. Feb. 19. The tour series went on hiatus for nearly a year and a half because of the COVID-19 pandemic and will now start back near the halfway mark, with Summer Hill the 17th of the 34 cemeteries.
The church and cemetery are at 200 Summer Hill Church Road, off Clito Road. People who would like to join the tour in person should contact the Willow Hill Center in advance, by phone at 912-800-1467, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The center is not providing transportation to cemeteries at this point. The tour will be recorded for Facebook Live presentation at a later date instead of actually going live that morning.
Willow Hill Museum
But the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center is slated to be open for an in-person tour of its museum and grounds, 1:30 p.m. Feb. 26.
Occupying former classrooms, the museum features exhibits on the Tragedy at Ebenezer Creek; on the history of the Black Primitive Baptist Churches in the area; on pioneering local educator Professor William James, the school he founded and its successor, William James High School; and on slavery in Bulloch County. Of course, the original exhibit documents the history of the Willow Hill School, and there’s also a multi-panel display about the Bennett Grove School.
Outside, the Willow Hill campus now features the Bennett Grove schoolhouse and, since last summer, the center’s Wi-Fi equipped learning pavilion. A ceremony in September 2021 dedicating the pavilion was the center’s most recent in-person event prior to this month’s activities.