November 1, 2012

The Road to the Rosenwalds

More often than not my discoveries of Rosenwald schools have been by sheer luck or accident. Shameful as it is to admit, I didn’t know what a Rosenwald school was 12 years ago. The truth is, I wasn’t even going to take a photograph of the first one I saw, because I assumed it would just be there on my next visit.

Thankfully, I did make a photo of that school in Uttingertown, Ky., on that day back in 2002. Shortly thereafter, the school was gone. My photographs of the Rosenwald Schools are an extension of my work that I call The Homeplace, a project on historic African-American hamlets in Kentucky. Many of these communities were once home to Rosenwald schools, but now few remain.

These days, if I am anywhere near a school, a detour (or 12) is inevitable. There was the day on my family vacation when I thought I knew the location of a school nearby; 200 miles later I found an empty field. But then there are those other days, like the one last June. My daughter and I were on the hunt. We met a woman and her son out in front of her house on a dead-end street. I asked about the old black school.

"School? Old black school?" asked the woman. "Well, one was torn down long time ago, but there is one behind the old white building. Did you see it through the bushes? Do you want to follow me there?"

Of course we did follow, and we were rewarded with a Rosenwald. There it stood, a bit unrecognizable, a house now, but you could still see those distinct details: the set-back door and those wonderful tall windows that allowed for abundant natural light. The woman and her son worried about us following strangers behind bushes, so we promised to be careful and headed on our way to our next stop.

The roads to the Rosenwalds are often not straight ones. They tend to be filled with unexpected curves and turns and more than a few U-turns. Finding a school at the end of lane or still standing along the side of the road is like finding buried treasure. Some days you drive and drive and drive but find nothing. Other days, with the wave of a hand you are taken in and taken back to stories and lives and find gold.

A number of years ago I had photographed a school that had been turned into apartments. I was curious to see if it remained standing. We found the school, still an apartment building. As my daughter and I stood out front making photographs a man came out of his house nearby waving his arms for us to come over: "I know you. You were here a few years ago. Come in."

I had met him with a friend on that first trip, back then he was a bit reluctant to talk or have his photograph taken. On this day, he waved us into his home where he and his sister were playing an intense game of dominos. They shared stories of growing up in the neighborhood and of what the school was like; both had attended it. That day, they were the treasures at the end of the road.

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