February 13, 2013

Voices of Rosenwald Schools: Mabel Dickey Tells Mt. Zion's Story

Mabel Dickey

Mt. Zion Rosenwald School

Allow us to introduce you to Mabel Dickey. She's one of countless volunteers across the country who are tirelessly working to save Rosenwald Schools in their communities and preserve a compelling piece of African-American history.

Called the "most influential philanthropic force that came to the aid of Negroes at that time," the Rosenwald School Building Program began in 1912 and eventually provided seed grants for the construction of more than 5,300 buildings in 15 states, including schools, shops, and teachers' houses which were built by and for African-Americans.

Mabel was one of the students who benefited from this forward-thinking program. She attended the Mt. Zion Rosenwald School near Florence, SC for a brief period as a young child, and retired back to Florence as a adult. Today, she continues to fundraise so the school can be restored and used by the Mt. Zion Methodist Church and the surrounding community.

As one of our Voices of Rosenwald Schools interviewees, Mabel shared her memories, experiences, and lessons learned about this special place. Hear firsthand about her journey, and learn why she's not giving up on this little schoolhouse any time soon.

Why did the Mt. Zion school hold such a special place in your heart after so many moves and years?

I was born in Mars Bluff, but my parents died at an early age -- my mother when I was 11, my father 3 or 4 years after that. We then moved around to stay with whichever relatives could take us, and we ended up back in South Carolina with my father’s family (our uncles and aunts). So that’s why I wanted to come back here [when I retired]. It’s home.

What do you know now about the process that you wish you’d known when you started?

I guess it was better that I didn’t know because I could see how things came together. When I started the National Register application, I had no idea what to do or anything about the school -- I thought Julius Rosenwald was a local real estate developer!

But I’m glad I didn’t know yet because I got to interview the first students at the school (built in 1925) and they told me all about its history -- how they sold chickens to raise the seed money, how there was a Rosenwald School Day in South Carolina, how this school was only one of seven in the state that had a teacher’s cottage, etc. I could connect the dots through all the stories, and it meant more to me to hear it. The oral history was precious.

If somebody said to you, “I want to save a Rosenwald school too,” what’s the first thing you’d say to them?

I’d tell them to first do the research to learn more about the school, then get involved with your community leaders and church leaders. [Ed. note: Many times the schools were started by churches or affiliated with churches.] It’s a hard journey, and it can be tough to get funding.

But what I’ve learned is the story of how people got these schools started. I thought it was a given, but the schools tell the humble beginnings of African-American people and the struggle they went through to provide their own education. I didn’t know much about any of this, and it can teach you so much.

It’s awesome, really. It’s why I can’t give it up. I’m staying with it as long as I can. I don’t plan to give up until we restore that school.

Listen to the full podcast:

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi was the senior director of digital marketing at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and gawks at buildings.

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