Sharptown Colored School in rural Maryland reopens as a community center


Newell E. Quinton, 79, of San Domingo, stands where a baseball field used to be outside the school he attended. He’s helped turn it into the San Domingo Community and Cultural Center. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Newell Quinton points through the rippled glass of a large second-story window into a sun-soaked field of tall grass. “You see where those short pine trees are? That was home plate.”

Seventy years old, Quinton stood in the wood-planked halls of the school he attended in the 1950s, filling in the field outside with the memories of his rural Maryland boyhood. A trim gray mustache lines his upper lip, and as he relays stories of softball, bib overalls and lining up after recess, the voice that leaves his mouth is at once 7 and 70, animated and articulate.

Back then, Sharptown Colored School in unincorporated San Domingo, Md., was a rare option for African American children in the outlying parts of Wicomico County. At the time, many rural black students in the South were taught in church basements or barns, if they could access education at all.

And black families such as the Quintons treasured the chance to learn, teaching their children that if they got an education, no one could take it away. So Quinton went to school and kept going until he finished college. He served in the military and started his career in the federal government.

“The Mason-Dixon line was — as we say in these parts — right over there,” Quinton says, gesturing north.


A flag flies outside the windows of the school. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The story of Sharptown Colored School, built in 1919, spans Jim Crow to the Great Migration and the civil rights movement.

It is a story of a partnership: between Julius Rosenwald, a rich Jewish businessman who recognized that the struggles of blacks in America were comparable to what Jews suffered in Europe, and Booker T. Washington, the slave-turned-education leader who advocated learning as the road to empowerment.

Together they created a program that would help build more than 5,300 schools, teachers quarters and other educational facilities for African Americans across 15 states in the South. By 1928, one-third of the South’s African American children and teachers were housed in Rosenwald schools.

Quinton’s San Domingo school, which reopened last weekend as a historical landmark and community center, was one of them.

The school had been one of the community’s most treasured and important institutions, back when, Quinton said, “you had this understanding that black people live here and white people live there.”

But as schools became racially integrated, black students started going elsewhere. In 1957, the Sharptown Colored School was repurposed as a lodge hall and then a day care.

Along the way, the original wood was covered with aluminum siding, linoleum flooring was installed, and the school’s signature large windows were partially boarded up.


Quinton took great care to make sure the school was restored accurately, enlisting historical architect Paul Touart to follow the original Tuskegee plans. The large windows in each class were specifically situated so the sunlight would pour over a student’s left shoulder to compensate for the lack of electricity. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

When Quinton retired from his job as a federal Veteran Affairs manager, he moved back to San Domingo in 2002 and started telling stories about the schoolhouse to local youth groups.

Noting their interest, in 2004 Quinton and his wife, Tanja R. Henson-Quinton, decided to restore the school to its original state.

They called the Maryland Historical Trust, whose representatives asked whether the school was a Rosenwald school. The Quintons had no idea.

“I hung up and Googled, and that’s how I found out,” Tanja said.

Rosenwald schools’ history

The restoration project became a history lesson for the couple as they discovered the larger effort of which their school was a part.

Julius Rosenwald, the son of German immigrants, became the president of Sears, Roebuck and lived in Illinois. He met Booker T. Washington in 1911 at a speaking event in Chicago featuring Washington. By then, Washington had established the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama to educate African Americans.

Working together, the men created a three-pronged program to build schools based on what historians consider a very modern philanthropic model. Communities could receive a grant on the condition that they raised a matching or exceeding amount of money. The process also required partnering with the public school board to provide additional funding and maintain the schools. The Rosenwald schools were public schools incorporated into the public education system.

Communities took pride in the schools that they had helped to create, often donating their land and labor to help them succeed. Quinton didn’t know his school was a Rosenwald school, but he knew that his grandpa and his neighbors’ grandfathers had built it.

Rosenwald and Washington “were similar men because both were very practical and results-oriented,” said Stephanie Deutsch, the author of “You Need a Schoolhouse,” about the historic collaboration.

“Everyone knows there was slavery and that there’s a civil rights movement, but not everyone knows there’s 100 years in between of terrible history,” said Deutsch, whose husband is a Rosenwald descendant. “In a funny way, recent history can slip away, and that piece of history is so beautifully expressed through the Rosenwald school buildings.”

In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Rosenwald schools to its list of most endangered historic places. Doing so, officials said, was a nod to the huge amount of interest in restoring and preserving the schools among alumni, who were reaching into their own pockets and partnering once again with local governments to raise funds and find new purposes for the buildings.

Of the thousands of Rosenwald schools, which were built mostly between 1912 and 1932, the National Trust estimates only 15 percent survive. They can be difficult to find; Rosenwald did not put his name on the buildings, which scattered in far-flung places, said Tracy Hayes, a field officer at the National Trust.

“The process to preserve these buildings really was generated from the bottom up,” Hayes said.

Justin Sarafin of Preservation Virginia said 367 Rosenwald schools were built in Virginia, and he estimated that about 30 percent remain. He said his group is preparing to launch a statewide initiative to connect various alumni groups and guide them through the school restoration process. The Maryland Historical Trust funded a survey of the schools and estimated that one-third of the 156 Maryland Rosenwald schools still exist.

A faithful restoration

The San Domingo school was restored with about $200,000 in grants from the National Trust, the Maryland Historical Trust, Preservation Maryland, the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore and local donations.

Quinton took great care to make sure the school was restored accurately, enlisting historical architect Paul Touart to follow the original Tuskegee plans. The large windows in each class were specifically situated so the sunlight would pour over a student’s left shoulder to compensate for the lack of electricity. Contractors stripped off the aluminum siding and kept as much of the original wood as possible. The exterior was painted a buttery yellow.

The original school was funded with $500 from Rosenwald, $800 from the community and $5,000 from the government, according to the archival database at Fisk University. Most schools were built for two teachers, but Sharptown had two stories and rooms for three teachers.

There are bathrooms inside the community center now and no more potbelly stoves are needed to keep it warm, but Quinton, along with his cousin Rudolph Stanley, 66, and neighbor Avery Walker, 71, sat in the bright former classroom reminding each other of how cold the water tasted from the pump behind the school, the corporal punishment the principal sometimes subjected them to, and how they would pick tomatoes for 10 cents a basket in the summer.

The school felt like family, they said, exchanging grandfatherly tsk-tsks about the youth these days. Farming taught them discipline, and having to fight for an education taught them to value it.

“It instilled in us an ethic that in order to get something you have to work, you have to put the time and labor into it and earn it,” said Stanley, who graduated from college and became a high school math teacher.

The community has changed since their childhood. Not everyone knows their neighbors anymore and not everyone is African American. But the building looks close enough to the one they remember. The community center now serves as the headquarters for a drug and alcoholism prevention campaign for young local residents, Quinton said. He and his school friends want to make the community a family once again.

“The whole family had to work together. That was the culture. That’s how we survived,” he said.

Hattie Winder, 87, of nearby Hebron, Md., used to teach at the school. She visited the restored school and liked what she saw, saying: “Mr. Quinton and his committee, I would give them an A-plus.”

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