Human beings are often quick to forget the past, to throw away objects of old, to erase those belongings ill-suited to present day agendas and to trample upon things not easily understood. But history tells a story of life, of hope, of experience and, most importantly, of growth.
In a time when folks are often anxious to dismiss, distort or even cover up the past, it is so refreshing to learn of projects designed to do just the opposite — to preserve history as a reminder of struggles, perseverance and change.
Conversion of Gloucester’s Woodville Rosenwald School into a museum, a community space and a place for historical research shines a light on how historical preservation can foster learning, create community and illuminate ways in which society has evolved and grown in a capacity to understand and support one another.
Dr. Wes Wilson, president and executive director of the Woodville Rosenwald School Foundation, is spearheading the project. He is excited about the ways this facility will serve not only as a reminder of days of old but also as a place where people can connect and congregate as a unified community of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
Originally from Philadelphia, Wilson came to Virginia during his military career while stationed at Fort Eustis. After retiring from the service, he served on the Newport News School Board. In 1988, Wilson and his family moved to Gloucester and almost immediately got involved in the local government.
Wilson explains, “Built in 1923, as one of six, the school was a two-room teacher school housed in about a 1600-square-foot building, divided in half and turned into two classrooms. The dividing wall was what’s called an air wall that could slide out to turn the space into a single large classroom or community room. The concept was that the facility could serve as both an educational platform and community resource.”
Around 1934, the school was sold and converted to a residence, which it remained for 40 years. It was then sold and used to store antiques. In 2013, “the Economic Development Authority (EDA) purchased the building and began restoration to its original state,” says Wilson. “This is quite significant as it is the only school remaining of the original six.”
As part of the restoration process, Wilson says, “We have retained one large room where we will have period desks, blackboards and such, so visitors, students and historians can come and see what a classroom looked like in that time period.” The other large room is being divided into four rooms — a museum, a community room, a research room and a room that houses a small kitchenette, restrooms and the like. To date, work has been completed on the large room and the remaining four rooms are under construction.
When asked the origin of his interest in such a project, Wilson says, “I’ve seen a lot of Black History Month displays in Gloucester — one month out of the year. I perceive this building as an opportunity to display African American history related to education and community events. This gives us a platform to show Black history 12 months out of the year rather than just one.”
The value of this project is that “it serves as a model of the public structure of the community, the black and white community, united in preservation and the future,” says Wilson.
TO THE POINT:
Woodville Rosenwald School Foundation
Address: 4310 George Washington Memorial Hwy., Hayes, VA 23072
Phone: 804-693-6543; 757-509-2671, cell
Contact: Wes Wilson