Working to save Claflin School: State official tours building as residents brainstorm

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comMay 21, 2014 

Collapsed ceilings. Broken windows. Torn-up walls. A flooded basement. And indoor weeds sprouting from pollen-covered floors cluttered with debris.

That's what a tour of the old Claflin School on Fifth Avenue in Columbus revealed Wednesday, as a group of concerned residents walked carefully through the building they consider a community treasure.

Some groaned and shook their heads at the neglect. But they weren't discouraged.

"It's in bad shape, but it's a beautiful complex," said Jeanne Cyriaque, African-American programs coordinator for the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

The tour was organized by the Rev. Richard Jessie in response to the city considering a six-month extension to save the building, which sits on the site of the first school built for black children in Columbus. In April, Columbus administrators said the city had been unable to find any developers interested in restoring the old school, and unless a last-ditch effort was made, ownership of the property would likely revert to the federal government. Many in the community have since banded together to try to seek out funding sources or devise a plan to preserve the building.

About 25 people surveyed the property, then met across the street at Metropolitan Baptist Church to begin developing a 90-day plan.

Among those making a commitment to the project were Edward Howard, a historical preservation specialist at Fort Benning; Justin Krieg, director of planning and programming for the Historic Columbus Foundation; and Sam Nelson, chairman of the Chattahoochee Valley Veteran's Council. The group agreed to meet at 5 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays of the next few months to work on the project.

Cyriaque, whose office is based in Atlanta, said she works with communities to help them preserve historical sites in black communities. She said she has been interested in Claflin for about eight years, and she believes it can be restored if the community can get grants through public and private entities.

The building will need asbestos and lead removal, which can be very expensive, she said.

"You really need a lot of, not just community interest, but community partners to save a structure like this," she said. "So, I hope that this group here today might be that core group of people that is going to stimulate some interest in the building because we have to build a lot of partnerships to bring it back to life.

"But I definitely think it has great potential as some type of educational resource," she added. "And I've had conversations with Rev. Jessie encouraging him to go through a community input phase in putting together the plan that the city is asking for."

The original Claflin School was built in 1868 by the Freedmen's Bureau. The wooden structure eventually burned down, but two other buildings now sit on the site, one built in 1921 and the other in 1948, according to Edward Howard, who did extensive research on the building while working on a master's degree at Georgia State University. A courtyard sits in the middle.

Howard told the group that he would use information from his research when he applies for Claflin to be listed on the state and national registers for historical places. Cyriaque said the process takes about 12 to 18 months at the federal level, but the group might be able to get the state designation within six months. She said the state's registry review board only meets twice a year, and has its next meeting in August.

Cyriaque said the 1948 structure, which is the main building on the property, was built during a period when Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina invested money in black schools to stave off integration. During that time, Georgia spent $30 million to build about 500 black schools.

Many of those schools were constructed from 1949 to 1965 and were called "equalization" schools. Claflin, which already existed, received improvements and has the same historical significance, she said.

"Very few of our Freedom Schools survived in Georgia," Cyriaque said.

And she said she wants to preserve Claflin because "it's so important to the story of African-American education here."

Among those touring the site Wednesday were black plumbers, electricians and other contractors who said they wanted to join the effort. James Overstreet of Tri-City Electrical Service Company said he would do everything in his power to restore the building, including getting other contractors on board.

"It's a community project to preserve something of value in the black community," he said. "The historical aspect of the building is beneficial and educational for our youths."

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