History lesson drawn from life

Aixa Pascual
March 11, 2005

Summer Hill has reclaimed its historic heart.

The neighborhood's only school was shut down in 1968, when students were integrated into Cartersville's all-white schools. More than 30 years later, the dilapidated red-brick building was demolished.

Queen Lowe tutors Imani Gray (left) and Morgan Woods at the complex on the site of the African-American school.

LeeAnn Lands (from left), who teaches at Kennesaw State, led Melissa Massey and Erin Cochran in the historical research.

Mary Alice Johnson, who graduated from the all-black Cartersville school in 1958, teaches an after-school program at the rebuilt Summer Hill School building Tuesday.


Now a replica of Summer Hill School, where generations of black students were educated, including Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham, stands on the site. Inside, a museum chronicling the school's history is in the works.

The memorabilia and stories of teachers, students and the community, gathered by a Kennesaw State University professor and two dozen students, had been all but lost.

"I think it's wonderful," said Mary Alice Johnson, a 1958 Summer Hill School graduate who still lives in the neighborhood. "Our children have lost a lot of history, and they need to know where they came from."

The KSU students have done something unique in Summer Hill, Southern historians say.

"Creating a history of that depth and richness would be a hard project in a place like Atlanta, where there are lots of sources," said Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte. "To do that in a small town is really impressive."

Very few African-American schools in Georgia have had their history documented, said Clifford Kuhn, a Georgia State University historian.

For decades, Summer Hill School was at the center of a community of modest one-story houses that is still home to the largest concentration of blacks in Cartersville, now a city of 16,000, in Bartow County.

The picture that emerges from students' research ? including 42 oral histories ? is one of a small school that thrived during segregation, of a close-knit community where teachers spent their own money on books and parents sewed uniforms for the band.

"The school formed the anchor for the black community," Benham said in his oral history. "Most community activities were held at the school."

KSU students interviewed students and teachers who still remember the secondhand books with missing pages and the smell and smoke of burning trash from the landfill beside the school.

They remember J. Stanley "Fess" Morgan, the long-time principal, raising his crooked index finger during Friday morning lectures, urging students to have "bulldog tenacity."

They remember Latin verbs that his wife, Beatrice Morgan, also a music and English teacher, taught them to conjugate.

"It was just a village raising kids," said Nancy Beasley, 76, who graduated from the 11th grade in 1945. She came back to Summer Hill to teach after college.

'Eyesore' rebuilt

Looking into a glass case in the museum that holds some of the items retrieved from the community, Philya Gray, interim executive director of the Etowah Area Consolidated Housing Authority, laments "how much of it has been lost."

The housing authority took over the land where the school stood from the city of Cartersville in August 2001. "It was a terrible eyesore," said Gray.

The building was torn down and rebuilt in 2003 as a community center, offering after-school tutorial programs and GED (high school equivalency diploma) prep courses.

The facility was rebuilt with $1 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Housing authority members approached Kennesaw State University with the idea of documenting school history. Anheuser-Busch, which has a brewery in Cartersville, provided most of the funds for the project.

"We thought it would be good to have a room to [show] the history," said Gray.

Brass plaques on the doors of each room display the names of teachers in the 1950s and 1960s.

"It's a terribly important project to preserve the history of this community, not just for African-Americans," said David Archer, attorney for the city of Cartersville and an amateur historian. "That place meant a lot to the entire community."

An irony of history

LeeAnn Lands, an assistant professor of public history at KSU, remembers being excited when she was approached about the project in 2002. "Most places don't think of community history as part of community development," she said.

Lands created a class in the spring of 2003 to do the research. "It kind of gave our public history [program] a lab that we could develop any way," Lands said. A second class in the fall of 2004 gathered about 200 artifacts.

Students pored over deeds, fire insurance maps, newspaper microfilm and census records.

They took black-and-white photos of the community, observed the culture, and compiled the oral histories. Those interviewed also drew maps of the neighborhood as they remembered it from the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

Books and old class photos are already in the museum, which will open to the public May 9. Other items include:
| A badge for a delegate to the annual convention of the Georgia Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers in 1961 in Augusta.
| A peacock-blue band uniform.
| Report cards from 1958 and 1962, and a diploma from 1933.
| A scrapbook documenting PTA meetings.

As she looks through the items, Lands grabs a history and literature notebook from 1958 in which the student, Anna Bel Miller, took notes on Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that mandated school desegregation. Lands relishes the irony.

"They're learning about that ruling in a segregated school," she said.

The KSU project is not about segregation, but about the institutions created by the black community during segregation.

"What we decided to focus on was the creation of community within the Jim Crow South," Lands said. "How the African-American neighborhood built its own institutions."

A new understanding

Erin Cochran, now a KSU senior, read minutes of the Cartersville School Board going back to 1903 to see how the process of desegregation unfolded.

"I was most surprised that even after the [Brown] ruling was passed down, three years later they wanted to build a 'new Negro Elementary School,' " she said. "Summer Hill, all of a sudden, became priority number one." Even in 1966, "they're asking for a moratorium [on implementing desegregation]."

Melissa Massey, a KSU history major who graduated last year, studied census records going back to the 1870s, looking for family names and occupations. She conducted most of the oral history interviews.

The students' involvement with the community is impressive, said David Cecelski, a historian who has taught Southern history at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"It's a unique project," said Cecelski, who has done oral histories of African-Americans in North Carolina.

"They're really helping the community to preserve its own history [by deciding] what historical questions get asked and, ultimately, what they learn will lead to a new understanding of the civil rights movement and American history.