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New Chapter for an Emblem of Exclusion

As Black School Reopens As Museum, Students Recall Segregation Era

By Phuong Ly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page GZ18

Their hair is gray and thinning, and they are long retired with children and grandchildren, but when the five men strolled into the restored gray-sided schoolhouse, they were boys again.

Decades ago, Joseph Smith and his friends attended Smithville Colored School in Silver Spring, built in 1927 as one of the county's 15 campuses for black children. On Saturday, the elementary school, now restored and declared a historical site by the state and county, will have its grand opening as an African American heritage museum.

The Smithville school was used as a storage facility and a bus depot after it closed in 1952. In 1999, the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity bought the building from the county for $10. Its renovation has cost more than $300,000. At left and below is a report card of Joseph Smith, 74, a former accountant who spent 20 years in the Army. "I can just visualize myself outside playing or sitting here in the classroom," Smith said. Of segregation, he said: "It was a shame. There was so much progress that could have been made."

Museum to Open Saturday

An opening ceremony for the Alpha Phi Alpha Smithville School Museum and Education Center, at 811 E. Randolph Rd. in Silver Spring, will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Exhibits about slavery and segregation will be presented by the county, the Lincoln Park Historical Foundation, the Warren Historic Site Committee and the Sandy Spring Slave Museum.

For more information, call the Montgomery County Department of Park and Planning at 301-563-3400.

Members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity will conduct tours of the museum by appointment on weekdays, beginning in April, and hope to open it on weekends.

Members of the local chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation's oldest black fraternity, have worked since 1999 to renovate the former two-room school and turn it into a meeting place, computer center and spot where people can learn about the time when blacks and whites were forced by law and society to be educated separately.

"Anytime you see a part of your life retained, it's special," Smith, 74, a former Smithville student, said during the recent visit. "I can just visualize myself outside playing or sitting here in the classroom."

"Throwing spitballs," joked Jim Williams, 75, one of his classmates.

On a more somber note, the men reflected on segregation.

"We didn't know any different back then," said Williams, a retired operations manager for Bank of America who lives in Silver Spring. "It was a way of life."

"It was a shame," added Smith, a former accountant who spent 20 years in the Army and lives in the District. "There was so much progress that could have been made."

The Smithville school, on East Randolph Road, was named after Smith's ancestors, who settled in the Colesville area after the Civil War.

Smithville was one of 5,000 schoolhouses built with the help of money from Julius Rosenwald, an early president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Rosenwald did not believe in integration, but he felt that black children were entitled to a good education and wanted to build uniform two- and three-room schoolhouses wherever they were needed.

All of the 15 Rosenwald schools in Montgomery County have been torn down or converted into other types of facilities. Only Smithville has retained some of its historic characteristics.

Smithville closed as a school in 1952 and was acquired by the county in 1956 as surplus property. For years, it was used as a storage facility and a bus depot.

After the Board of Education decided in 1997 that it no longer needed the facility, members of Alpha Phi Alpha learned the school's history. The fraternity, which was looking for a place for chapter meetings, asked the county to declare the building a historical site and submitted a proposal to renovate it.

"Before that, I just saw it was a bus depot and a beat-up building," said Russell C. Campbell Sr., a Burtonsville fraternity member who is chairman of the school. "When I found it was a Rosenwald school, I knew we had to save it."

Campbell, a consultant on historical preservation, said his father was a principal of a Rosenwald school in South Carolina, and his mother was a student at one.

In 1999, Alpha Phi Alpha bought the Smithville school from the county for $10. The renovation has cost more than $300,000, said Andrew Klugh, a fraternity member in charge of the project.

The county provided about $90,000, and the state gave $150,000, he said. The rest was donated by fraternity members.

Klugh said the project has taken five years to complete because of the process of getting permits for a historical site, problems with contractors and the fact that it is a volunteer effort.

The school is in a rapidly developing part of the county. Subdivisions and strip malls line nearby Colesville Road, and a new apartment complex for senior citizens is next door.

Smithville doesn't appear historic. A wood-and-glass vestibule and an access ramp for the disabled serve as the entrance. Much of the building contains new wood, though there are pieces of original boards. Adjacent to the school is a separate building, a weather-worn one-room structure that was an addition to the school in the 1930s. It was not considered historic and was not part of the renovation.

In the restored area, fluorescent lights shine on a blue-carpeted main room. Natural light floods in from three sides; the alumni can only remember windows being on one side of the room when they were in school. The kitchen area has maple cabinets and new appliances.

Now that the renovation is complete, Campbell said, the fraternity will record the stories of the Smithville alumni. The group has been trying to collect artifacts from the segregation era and asking Smithville alumni to donate items for a permanent exhibit. The fraternity plans to try to get desks from the period and a pot-bellied stove.

The oldest photo of Smithville that the fraternity has found was taken around 1970, long after it closed, Campbell said. Some alumni believe that there are no older photos because having a photo made might have been too costly for the families in the area.

On the recent visit to the school, alumni expressed mixed feelings about school segregation.

Larry Williams, 65, attended Smithville during his early years in school but went to Montgomery Blair for high school after the Supreme Court declared in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that separate education was not equal.

At Smithville, Williams studied with about 100 black children. At Montgomery Blair, he said, he was one of four blacks in his senior class of more than 600.

Smithville had secondhand textbooks and supplies, Williams said, but it was at Montgomery Blair where he felt second-class.

"You ran into teachers that didn't have that same caring attitude towards African Americans," said Williams, a retired federal employee in Hyattsville. "You knew folks didn't want you there."

Campbell said he wants people of all races -- blacks and whites and the county's new immigrants -- to visit the school to understand the lessons of the past.

"We're hoping that this, what was designed to separate us, will unite us," he said.

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