Alva James-Johnson: Apathetic about our history

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comApril 11, 2014 

Alva James-Johnson

I haven't lived in Columbus long enough to fully grasp the sentimental attachment to the old Claflin School on Fifth Avenue. But I do know this: Some things are just worth preserving.

Claflin, I've discovered, is not just an old relic with boarded up doors and broken windows sitting on a weed-infested lot. It's history that takes us all the way back to the aftermath of the Civil War, when former slaves needed a place to educate their children. The Freedmen's Bureau built the first black school in Columbus on the site where the dilapidated building now stands, restricting its use to educational purposes. When the original building was destroyed by fire, the current building was erected in 1958, becoming an oasis of knowledge and culture in the community.

So what does Claflin represent? Freedom, not only from physical bondage, but also chains that kept blacks from knowledge for centuries. The school, like other black educational institutions across the nation, became the ladder out of the depths of slavery to a world of opportunity.

I can't think of a better way to show black children in Columbus that we value education and its transforming power than to preserve the one building in the city that most symbolizes that ideal.

But such rich heritage, it seems, is no longer valued by many in the community.

On Tuesday, city officials told council that they haven't been able to find any developers interested in restoring the Claflin School building. Plans to make it a one-stop center for the homeless have been abandoned and the property will likely go back to the federal government if no interested party comes forward. City Manager Isaiah Hugley said the city will make one last attempt to attract developers by setting up a public hearing in the near future.

But some residents who live in the neighborhood said they won't be holding their breaths.

"Nowadays it's all about me, me, me," said 34-year-old Marquis Foster, who sat with his father at an apartment complex not far from the site on Thursday afternoon. "People feel if it's not about them, they don't want anything to do with it. I wish we could get together and fight for something that really means something."

Click here to read more about the Claflin School

Foster said his grandfather, Willie Streeter, was one of the school's early students. Streeter is now in his 80s and tells stories about what a great school it once was.

"They should restore the building, use it for something valuable, like helping the homeless or a center for the kids," Foster said.

Foster isn't the only one who thinks the historical building can be preserved if the community comes together. Members of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and curators at the Columbus Black History Museum have been trying to rally the community for more than a year.

"I tried feverishly to get the community interested in that project," said Nate Sanderson, former NAACP president and now a candidate running for a school board seat. "But where's the outrage? It causes me great pain to see that there was no due diligence to preserve and restore the Claflin building,"

Since I've been in Columbus, I've heard other complaints about community indifference toward black historic landmarks.

Robert Anderson, chairman of the Liberty Theater Board, said he has the same problem trying to get people to come to the Liberty Theater, which was once the only theater where blacks were allowed.

"Right now, the problem is that the people who actually used the Liberty in its heyday, they're old," he said. "They don't get out like they used to when they were younger. And the neighborhood has changed so much. Younger folks now go to modern theaters and things, they go to the movies. They're not interested in historic places like the Liberty."

Anderson went to the Claflin School and would hate to see it torn down.

"I had some great teachers there, and it really set a good foundation for me," he said.

Johnnie Warner, director of the black history museum, said he's been trying to get blacks in Columbus to show more regard for the Claflin building and other aspects of black history for years, but people don't seem interested. He would like to see the school turned into a cultural center for studying and preserving black history.

Well, we'll just have to wait and see what happens with the old Claflin building and hope that someone comes forward with a plan soon. Until then, it remains a neglected historical treasure.

Alva James-Johnson, reporter, ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.com.

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