Religion News: Mt. Zion Church, Newtown Neighbors Begin Restoration of Historic School

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Ruby Smith at Newtown School in Greenwood. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

For years, Ruby Smith drove by the old Rosenwald School on Newtown Road and noted the vines creeping up the stone foundation, and the weeds in the schoolyard. After serving the area’s children for several decades, the school now belongs to Mt. Zion Church and has been used over the years for meetings, community events and storage. 

Smith’s worries concerned more than the school’s landscaping. Her parents, Roscoe and Ruby Ann Barbour, went to school there, and she grew up with their stories. Roscoe, who worked at Barnes Lumber Company, remembered putting paper bags over his shoes to keep them dry on his daily walk to and from school. Ruby Ann graduated and worked as a domestic, impressing her clients so much that they arranged to install plumbing in the Barbour’s Newtown home. In the mid-80s, she led an effort to make the former school into a community center. Other alumni from the neighborhood remembered feeling honored when they were chosen to raise or lower the flag each day. 

Architect Jody Lahendro inspects rickety front steps at Newtown School. Photo: Rhonda Roebuck.

Roscoe and Ruby Anne are gone now, and their daughter, who spent many years at a number of different occupations, returned to her old home and contemplated rescuing the school that meant so much to her parents and neighbors. Smith had some personal experience with the Building Goodness Foundation, a non-profit made up of construction professionals, and she approached the church for permission to restore the old building, and to involve Building Goodness in the process. Connie Alexander of Mt. Zion Church helped her tremendously in this effort, which took several tries, Smith said. 

The church agreed, and in mid-August a small delegation took its first tentative look at the job ahead. Smith was concerned about the number of gaps that looked like invitations for neighborhood wildlife, she said: “We were careful everywhere we stepped, that we didn’t step on something alive.” She said she was especially concerned about Greenwood rattlesnakes, but inspection revealed only a few abandoned bird’s nests. There were plenty of problems, though. Windows were missing, doors were without locks, hasty renovations––themselves in bad repair––obscured the original design, and Virginia’s exuberant wild flora was threatening the exterior walls. 

The Newtown School was built according to plans for a two-teacher school facing south. Courtesy Joseph Lahendro.

Smith held her breath while the several architects included in the inspection party tested the overall safety and stability of the building. Dirt and leaves had blown in, wind and water had left scars, but the basic structure and interior of the 1920’s-era school was good and, according to architect Jody Lahendro, it was the very model of what the Rosenwald plans described as a “two-teacher, south-facing” school.

The school was built at a time when Newtown was the largest Black community in Albemarle County, according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. More than a dozen such schools had been built in the county between 1921 and 1926, part of a joint effort by Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, one of the owners of Sears, Roebuck & Co. Rosenwald’s intention was to replace the dilapidated and poorly-equipped schools designated for children of color with well-designed, state-of-the-art buildings throughout much of the South. A dozen such schools were built in Albemarle County between 1921 and 1926. Today, only a handful remain. 

Thelma Sims and Charlie White, both Newtown graduates, talk to architect Jody Lahendro.

Most of the schools sat on several acres and cost between $2000 and $3000. Records show that the Newtown School (then called the Greenwood School) cost $3700, with the Rosenwald fund contributing about $700, the African-American community, $500; and public funds and benefactors making up the difference. The disturbing reality of the time was that schools in white neighborhoods were completely supported by taxes paid by people of all races. 

To get a better idea of the school’s features and to involve the community, the group wasted no time in scheduling a work day. A week later, Kathy Garstang of Building Goodness and Lahendro, who’s been involved in other Rosenwald restoration projects, came back for a longer look, joined by interested friends, construction professionals and neighborhood volunteers. Members and friends of Mt. Zion made huge pans of macaroni and cheese, baked beans and pasta salad. Brownsville Market donated mountains of fried chicken and McKee Foods in Stuarts Draft sent over dozens of Little Debbies for the event. 

Lahendro, who retired last spring from his position as U.Va.’s preservation architect, was thrilled at what the crew uncovered, a perfect example of a well-designed school of the time. He said the siting of the school was important as it determined the placement of the windows. “They thought of everything,” he said. The windows allowed the maximum amount of light throughout the day, coming in at just the right height, the right angle and in the right direction to avoid glare, and to prevent shadows falling over the students’ work.

Volunteers clean the inside of the school before removing the added-on bathrooms and tile ceiling. Photo: Matt Kelly.

In a two-teacher school, Lahendro explained, there was a barrier between the two classes, either temporary or permanent. To enable breezes to blow through both classrooms, there were typically interior windows placed above the barrier.  Lahendro also noted the stone foundation and the basement at the school: This was unusual, he said, but often the builders took advantage of the skills of the neighborhood during construction. There were plenty of rocks around, and the Newtown community had a talented stonemason in Smith’s uncle, Joseph Green, whose labor became part of the required community contribution.

It wasn’t all fried chicken and sides at the Saturday event. On a 95-degree day, the volunteer work crew removed the added bathrooms, cleared out debris and dirt, tackled the thick vines and vegetation, carefully uncovered the breezeway windows, secured the basement and removed the treacherous front steps. “We were all covered with dirt,” Smith said. Among the volunteers were former students Charlie White and Thelma Sims, who helped the architects with some history and context for the practical layout of the schoolrooms. Sims also furnished the macaroni and cheese for lunch and said the community effort was meaningful to her, and to the Newtown neighborhood. “It’s important to preserve the heritage of our communities,” she said, “so future generations are aware of how their parents and grandparents lived, and can appreciate the past.” 

Vines and weeds cover the entrance of the Newtown school before the clean-up crew removed them. Photo: Matt Kelly.

What’s next for Newtown? There’s a lot to be done, Smith said. She’s searching for an attorney to help with legal work for the fledgling project, looking for other donors, and putting together a steering committee. On a more mundane level, she’s waiting for a chipper to turn fallen branches into mulch. “We’ll plant flowers on the front bank, once the weather breaks,” she said. Garstang, Building Goodness’s director, said Mt. Zion will make some initial decisions before anything can progress.

It can’t happen fast enough for Smith, she said. “I’ve been thinking about it all these years. Now that it’s moving forward, I think it’s what I’ve been put here to do.”

For donations, or to volunteer for this project, call Building Goodness Foundation, 434-973-0993. To donate legal counsel, call Ruby Smith at 434-409-7202. 

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