Few places in the United States, let alone Georgia, have the cultural heritage of St. Simons Island. Not only is it a foundation for Gullah-Geechee culture, it’s one of the only places African-American culture was left alone during the early days of emancipation through the Jim Crow era.
However, St. Simons almost lost a focal cultural landmark in 2011 when the nearly 100-year-old, single-room Harrington School House was almost demolished. It was the last African-American schoolhouse on the island, and that landed it on the Georgia Trust’s 2011 Places in Peril.
“We found out that it could be restored, and that’s when the Friends of Harrington was formed to bring together whites and blacks and people interested in history … to try to save the schoolhouse so that it could be a cultural center and museum,” said Patty Deveau, president of the Friends of Harrington School Inc.
Through the activism of that group, as well as the St. Simons African-American Heritage Coalition and the community, the funds were raised for the schoolhouse to be completely restored. The restoration cost approximately $300,000, including $25,000 via a challenge grant from the Watson-Brown Foundation. Restoration should be finished by next month.
For this community, the schoolhouse represents more than just an old wooden building. It was a community hub that now serves as a living embodiment of the tight-knit community that utilized it.
A bedrock American culture
“We were doing great in the knowledge department — we had books and maps and papers of senators and things like that — but what we were missing was wisdom, and that was the voices of ordinary people,” said Todd Harvey, folklife specialist at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
The Library’s solution was to create an archive of American folk song, as folk music was seen as an art form of the common man. This is when the Gullah-Geechee culture was documented and seen as a bedrock American culture.
The populace of the Golden Isles were descendants of West Africans who were enslaved to grow indigo, rice, sugar cane and sea island cotton. The Gullah-Geechee culture features its own language, which some may describe as a Creole language. They also have their own Christian worship practices and artistic expressions, including pottery and basket-weaving using the local sea island grasses.
Harvey is also a curator for the Alan Lomax Collection. Alan Lomax, who frequented St. Simons, was an American field collector of folk music, and many of his photos, recordings and manuscripts are now protected in the Library of Congress. (See sidebar box for more about Lomax.)
Learning in a segregated, one-room schoolhouse
Hundreds of African-American children attended grade school, first through seventh grades, until desegregation in the ’60s.
Amy Roberts, executive director of the St. Simons African-American Heritage Coalition, spent her first- and second-grade years within the Harrington School House in 1953 and 1954. It wasn’t on her end of town, but “we were all members of the same church,” Roberts said.
She remembers riding to school with a schoolteacher and his wife. Her parents paid 50 cents a week for the travel favor. Roberts has many other vivid memories of the school, including using acorns to help count and learn simple addition.
“It was interesting because we shared everything,” Roberts said. “It wasn’t like I had my own set of anything. Whatever the county gave us to learn with, that’s what we used.”
That strong sense of community was what she remembered the most, whether it be church picnics, gatherings or community movie nights, all of which were often hosted at the Harrington School House.
“It’s not like it was back then. Everybody was either your uncle, your aunt or your cousin,” Roberts said. “It’s not the same anymore because there’s not that many African-Americans on St. Simons anymore.”
The island’s future
The population of St. Simons used to be approximately 75 percent African-American when the schoolhouse was new. Now it’s less than 3 percent African-American. (The 2010 census showed an overall population of almost 13,000.)
Melissa Jest, African-American programs coordinator for the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, points to the rise in tourism and higher property taxes as reasons for the massive demographic change.
“We are a capitalistic society, and the market has way too much influence on our daily lives, and the market has definitely come to bear on this beautiful place, and everyone wants a piece of it,” Jest said.
Jest added that this is another benefit of the Harrington School restoration project, since it galvanized people on the island behind the preservation cause. As a result, it bled out into other aspects of activism among the African-American community into topics such as land ownership and conservation.
“We use the word ‘culture’ a lot, and I think it’s losing part of its weight, but a culture is really best practiced on the land that’s native to the people whose beliefs and food ways and traditions make up the culture,” Jest said.
The restored schoolhouse will contribute to upholding this culture and will be renamed the Historical Harrington School Cultural Center. It will feature a small museum, community events and tours.
Tours are already being offered for a donation charge, and Roberts is heavily involved.
“When they go on the tour, they learn about the way we live, the way we worship and a few other things — places that are listed in history that we can go visit and see,” Roberts said.
Deveau, of the Friends of Harrington School Inc., added that other programs are in the works, such as a potential library of African-American history and a program that will give local schoolchildren the experience of being taught for a day “as they would’ve been in a one-room, segregated schoolhouse.”
Deveau added that one core concept defines what the Harrington School House stands for and represents: freedom.
“When you look at historic sites along the coast, many and most of them focus on slavery. What we’ll be able to do at the Harrington school is focus on freedom through civil rights,” Deveau said. “Those 150 years have some great stories to tell, and if you don’t save and share those stories, you won’t have a complete history of the island.”
SIDEBAR: ‘SONGS OF STRUGGLE’
Alan Lomax visited St. Simons Island in 1935 and met musicians like Henry Morrison, John Davis and Ben Ramsay. However, the most influential musicians he met were Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers.
After spending most of the 1950s in Europe in political exile, Lomax came back to the States with new, stereo recording equipment and toured the United States documenting folk music. He returned to St. Simons in 1959.
“In 1959, when Alan Lomax returned to the Georgia Sea Islands, it was really Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers that he sought out and documented,” said Todd Harvey, folklife specialist at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
Jones was also a player in the civil rights movement during the ’60s, according to Patty Deveau, president of the Friends of Harrington School Inc.
“Bessie went to some of the planning centers for the freedom march in the early ’60s, and they were all trying to come up with new marching songs, and she flat-out told them the old songs are the songs of struggle,” Deveau said. “Those are the songs of our people, and those are the songs that we need to be using.”
Some of Lomax’s recordings protected in the Library of Congress were recorded inside the Harrington School House during his 1959 trip.