Near the end of the Civil War, what was formally named the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was established for the educational, economic, health and humanitarian assistance of former slaves in the former Confederate states.
Under the authority of what became known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, more than 1,000 schools were built for black children, one of them on Fifth Avenue in Columbus. According to the website of the National Park Service, “The first four-room schoolhouse on the property was built in 1868 through the efforts of the Freedmen's Bureau, the Claflin Academy of Boston, and local trustees to provide crucial education to recently emancipated African-American children.” The property was deeded to the Columbus city school system in 1880, with the stipulation that it be used exclusively for education.
The main building of what we know as the Claflin School was built in 1948; the 1868 schoolhouse was destroyed by fire 10 years later.
Despite the loss of the original structure, the site is listed on the Georgia Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Register, and has been listed among the Georgia Register’s historic “Places in Peril.”
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Three and a half years ago the Friends of Historic Claflin (FHC) was formed to save and restore the historic site of the first school for black children in Columbus. Under the leadership of the Rev. Richard Jessie, the organization’s executive director, FHC has been trying not only to secure the financing necessary for the project, but also to navigate what at times has seemed a maze of conflicting and/or redundant restrictions on how the property can be used.
As announced Tuesday to Columbus Council, FHC has joined forces with a planning and development company, Oracle Consulting Services LLC, to convert the site for both affordable housing and historic/educational use. The result of that agreement is a holding company called Claflin School Preservation, L.P., which presumably can get both housing and historic tax credits for the project.
It's a win-win, or at least a nothing-to-lose, proposition for the city, which reportedly will not be responsible for any expenses — and will, if this project comes to fruition, collect revenue from property taxes. According to Jessie, U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop was instrumental in negotiating the terms of the redeveloped site’s uses. (Because of the legal restriction to educational purposes, the city had planned to deed the property, given the deteriorated state of the building, back to the federal government before FHC’s intervention.)
“They’re taking a blighted property that we did not want and we tried to give back to government,” City Manager Isaiah Hugley said Tuesday. “We gave it to (FHC) and they struggled with it for a couple of years, and then the developer came along with an idea.”
Councilor Skip Henderson applauded the preservation group’s persistence: “Mr. Jessie and Friends of Historic Claflin really had a circuitous route to get to where we are, and I applaud them for sticking to it.”