Kimberly Ransom — “From Memory to Monuments: Using Historical Research to Create a Local Rosenwald Museum in Pickens County, Alabama”
Familial Memory & Foundations of Schooling
As an African American girl growing up on the Southside of Chicago, I knew nearly nothing about my family’s past. I knew, in the 1950s, my mother, her siblings, and my grandparents fled rural Alabama for Chicago. My mother’s accounts of living in a one-room attic and being teased about her southern dialect painted a picture of the economic and social struggle to make Chicago home. Stories of Alabama were absent. While I would experience fragments of the South in the tongues and tastes of my grandmother and her sister’s language and food, their experiences growing up in Ethelsville, Alabama, were locked in their mouths, behind a veil – simply unknown to me. Particularly, I knew nothing of their childhoods. There were no photographs, no diaries, no artifacts, and truly – beyond struggles to survive life in the North – no stories. My mother would sometimes tell me, “We are from nowhere.”
In 1988, my grandmother, Ollie Rose Davis (Neal), and her sister Vera staged a family reunion in Ethelsville. As they stood on the edges of the winter of their lives, I imagined they wanted to lift the veil and show us their land. I was a teen. By this time, my family had risen from living in basements and attics to homeownership and careers. My life was far from the seemingly unending dirt roads we traveled to go back to our family’s beginning. As we whisked through 100-foot trees, crosses, armadillos, and talk of poisonous snakes, my mind stood suspended in disbelief. I felt ghosts all around. Crosses were eerie. Animals were foreign. Dialects were indecipherable. Abandoned wooden shotgun houses stood still. Leaned. Weathered. Torn apart. Windows and doors, long abandoned, hung open like gaping mouths trying to speak. And among my family, there was laughter, loving, wholehearted hugs, remembering among the elders, introductions to unknown cousins cloaked in familiar. Our hair matched. Our eyes matched. Grandmothers, Aunties, and Uncles shined their eyes on us and said, “Yeah, whoooo look at ‘em! They kin alright!” Alongside the family church, a graveyard held the ancestors. I walked through them, speaking their names with my eyes – Dulcie Neal, Selvin Neal, Christine Neal, Hillman Neal… Neal… Neal… Neal. My mind raced to photograph them. All the graves read Neal. My observation left me shook.
As the reunion ended and we pulled away from Ethelsville, the graveyard stood like a Constitution Oak tree in the center of it all – the landscape and my mind. While I spent my time enjoying this newfound world, I also could not shake the question, “What is this place?” While I recall having thoughts of wanting to return to Ethelsville and to my question, I had no idea years later Ethelsville (and more broadly, the county seat of Pickens) would become my archive.
In 2014, I began doctoral studies in the Marsal Family School of Education at the University of Michigan. My first course was “The Foundations of Schooling” with Professor David K. Cohen. During the course, we read Dr. James Anderson’s book, “The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935.” This course and book were my first introduction to African Americans’ ongoing struggle for education. One such effort was the Rosenwald School Program. The Rosenwald School Program resulted from a partnership that unfolded between Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute, Julius Rosenwald, founder and owner of Sears and Roebuck Co., and rural Black communities, to build formal schoolhouses – efforts which research has shown endured and gained momentum after the abolition of slavery. The Rosenwald School Program was ignited by Washington, who approached Rosenwald for seed funding to support rural African American communities’ efforts to build schoolhouses in Alabama. Rosenwald, who was a supporter of Tuskegee Institute, agreed to provide seed funds that would be joined with funding provided by Blacks’ and public funding.
The Program began in 1912 with six schools in Macon County, Alabama. By 1938, the Program grew to over 5,300 schools throughout the South; 389 of these schools were built in Alabama. By 1916, this momentum spread to Pickens County, where Blacks established the first of six Rosenwald Schools (Pickens County Training School) to serve the community.
Research has shown Julius Rosenwald donated $4 million to the Rosenwald Program, and the African American community (e.g., farmers, sharecroppers, laborers, etc.) raised $4.8 million as well as provided labor, materials, and land. African Americans in Pickens County had a long commitment to education and were a part of this historic movement.
I was particularly struck by the aesthetic of these schoolhouses. Many were wooden, white, and built above ground on bricks. The look of the schools reminded me of a story my mother shared with me about an elementary school experience. She mentioned she would play “underneath the school building,” and she “couldn’t imagine why teachers allowed her to do this”; after all, “that school could’ve fell on me!” This little slice of memory called me back to Ethelsville. I immediately thought, “Had my mother attended a Rosenwald School?” I asked my mother for the name and location of her school. It had been in Ethelsville, and it was named Mamiesville. A series of google searches and serendipitous events revealed that Mamiesville was indeed a Rosenwald School. Additionally, I found there had been six Rosenwald Schools in Pickens County, Alabama, and most of my family had attended these schools. My grandmother, Ollie Rose, had been a student and later a teacher.
New questions emerged. “Why hadn’t I known about Rosenwald Schools? Why hadn’t the students (e.g., my mother, grandmother, and ancestors) shared this amazing history through our family? What were their experiences? What were Black children’s childhood experiences in these schools?” As I sought out these questions by reading primary and secondary texts in my course, I quickly learned that Black children’s childhood experiences in and around these schools have been scantly documented. Scholarship reflecting Black children’s voices has rightfully captured their experiences with racial oppression, racial activism, and the perspectives of their teachers. But what of childhood for the Black schoolboy or schoolgirl growing up in the Jim Crow South attending Rosenwald Schools?
In my Foundations of Schooling course, I found myself standing at the intersection of long-held questions about the histories of childhood in my family and new questions related to Black children’s childhood experiences in the history of African American education. In short, I was going back to Ethelsville, but this time, I would stay a while. In 1988, I was a young curious descendant. In 2015, I would become a budding critical historian and, unbeknownst to me at the time – a historical activist. I would spend six years in Pickens County, Alabama, examining Black children’s voices and perspectives related to childhood experiences in and around any of the six Rosenwald schools once located in Pickens County, Alabama.
Moving from Memory to Monuments: Historical Research & Action
In 2015, I entered Pickens County, Alabama, to begin my research. At the same time, activists around the country were tearing down Confederate monuments and flags. Activists’ removal of monuments they considered to be stark reminders of dark histories of racial oppression reminded me of the power of monuments. Monuments are structures or sites that establish historical importance, solidify lasting evidence of notable histories, are erected to evoke remembrance, and claim a version of history as a public version, as truth.
Recall, when I first visited Ethelsville, I could only find fragments of the past on the landscape. Returning, I found monuments honoring the County’s Confederate past. Additionally, there were public histories of lynching and a museum commemorating Camp Aliceville, a WWII German internment camp previously located in Pickens County between 1942 – 1945. Histories of Pickens’ African American past – including the Rosenwald Schools – were not publicly visible in local institutions (e.g., libraries, courthouses, schools, etc.). Like activists who have committed to stand against monuments representing oppressive past by tearing down, I wanted to stand against an oppressive past by building up a monument that would make African American history publicly legible in Pickens County via the story of Rosenwald Schools and Black childhood.
Historical Research & Museum Making
My research study sought to foreground the voices and perspectives of Black children in and around Rosenwald schools. Given that their voices have rarely been documented in institutional archives (which was also evident in Pickens), I felt I needed to use a methodological approach that would support the use of creative processes for data collection – processes that would allow me to “look beneath the surface” of traditional institutional archives. I used ethnohistorical methods to find these children’s voices in the local community. Ethnohistorical methods allow for the collection of historical data beyond traditional archives and can include collecting oral histories, material objects, and documents from local sources (e.g., personal collections, local libraries, courthouses, local newspapers, etc.). My investigation draws on oral histories, material objects, archives, and ethnographic data from four of six Rosenwald Schools located in Pickens County, Alabama between 1915 -1973. The period of study is 1940 -1969.
Over a twelve-month period that spanned three summers, I amassed data from the community. I collected 49 oral history interviews and collected over 300 material objects from former Rosenwald School children. Additionally, I collected documents from archives (both national and local). These data would become foundational information and materials for the creation of the Historic Pickensville Rosenwald School Museum and Community Center and the curation of our first exhibition “Portraits of Honor.” Developing the museum and culminating the exhibition was a community effort that included both research and community action. I found that our group pivoted between these two themes as we embedded ourselves in historic restoration, collecting, education, curating artifacts, and audience development. Below I briefly describe the growth of our museum across these areas of work.
Pickensville alumni and the community had been steadily working to preserve the Pickensville School for decades following the school’s closure in the 1970s. For example, although alumna Ms. Mary Collie, migrated to New York and lived there for years, she remained committed to the preservation of her beloved elementary school which she saw as the center of the community. In an oral history interview, she shared, “I would collect cans and raise funds however I could and send that money home to help the schoolhouse.”
When I arrived in Pickens County in 2015, the “Locke” sisters, also former students of Pickensville – Mrs. Mary Fuseyamore, Mrs. Paulette Newberns, and Mrs. Caroline Wright – were the newest crew hard at work on the building. They had been working for over 12 years. Upon my arrival, they had just replaced the roof and the foundation of the building with funds they received from the National Trust for Saving Historic Spaces, Blackbelt Foundation, and community donations.
But in April 2011 a bad storm hit Pickensville, and a tree fell through the roof, severely damaging the schoolhouse. This is when the three Locke Sisters stepped in to not only repair the building but to restore the schoolhouse to its historic appearance. Over decades the schoolhouse had undergone major repairs, but there was still a long road ahead. The internal structure was raw. While it held original desks, blackboards, windows, flooring, etc., the building was in ill condition. Alumnus and contractor Mr. James ‘Beaver’ Williams stepped in with his team to complete the repairs according to historical standards. A contractor who specialized in historical windows was also brought in for several weeks to reconstruct 14 windows around the building.
During this time, I approached the three leaders – who I affectionately call the “Destiny’s Child” of historical restoration – with the idea of creating a museum inside the school. I proposed using one classroom as a museum space. The classroom could be a permanent exhibition space curated with the oral histories and artifacts amassed in my historical research.
The ladies agreed, and the community museum idea was born. Pickens County would soon have a local museum featuring the histories of African American education and life in the county and its connections to the history of education across Alabama and the nation.
The development of a museum provided momentum for the entire restoration project. We were able to secure funding from the University of Michigan Public Scholarship Grant as well as the Black Belt Foundation. These grants provided support for the development of the exhibition (e.g., purchasing and prepping exhibition materials) and for the completion of the construction of the classroom that would house the museum. We received this support in 2016. The museum was completed in 2019 and culminated with a grand opening that attracted visitors from across Alabama.
Collecting and Curating Artifacts
Amassing artifacts and designing the exhibition was a process of community-based historical inquiry. While I was engaged in conducting oral history interviews and collecting objects from former schoolchildren, our museum team helped to identify interviewees and local institutions and people who might hold materials and archives from the Rosenwald Schools. Our museum team began with a small group of key informants and grew to include alumni that spanned four of the six Rosenwald Schools of Pickens: the Hopewell School, the Pickensville School, the Pickens County Training School, and the Mamiesville School. Alumni across these networks banded together to collect as many artifacts as they could. While there were many great historical finds within the community archive, one was of special significance. The family of the former librarian of Pickens County Training School, Mrs. Henrietta Lucinda Wilkinson, donated any contents of her home that would be significant to our Rosenwald School museum project.
We were able to amass various documents and materials related to Pickens County Training School. Some of these items included library books, the library log (1925 – 1969), the gradebook of all students 1925-1969, and various photographs and diplomas providing evidence of Ms. Wilkerson’s educational trajectory. These documents and artifacts became key pieces of data that guided our curation of the teachers’ lives and experiences in the museum exhibition.
While working with the community to envision and create the museum, it was also important to educate the community on historical action. I think of historical action as using historical research to promote grassroots cultural uplift and transformation. In our case, we used historical research to work with the Pickens County community to unsilence local histories of Black childhood in and around Rosenwald Schools. This process helped to ignite cultural uplift through knowledge making and spatial transformation. Part of this work has been education. To educate our group, we took trips to local Rosenwald museums and university archives. We also held visioning meetings to collectively dream about the mission and vision of our museum. What would this space be for the community? What were the stories we wanted to tell? Who did we want to reach? How would this space function? What should it look the space and exhibition like?
To begin to answer these questions, we went on a mini-listening tour in the Alabama area. We visited Tuskegee University’s Special Collections and Shiloh Rosenwald School. At Tuskegee, we met with University Archivist, Dana Chandler, and toured the archive. Our group toured the archive, learned about the purpose of archives, and the University’s archival processes. We also explored Booker T. Washington’s Papers which introduced our group to catalog and finding aid processes. At Shiloh Rosenwald School, we met with the museum Director and community members involved with museum operations.
Additionally, I developed and taught an oral history workshop to help Rosenwald alumni learn about the purpose and power of oral histories. Participants were guided through oral history methods so that they could interview their schooldays friends at an upcoming alumni reunion (2015).
These experiences gave community members a mentor text for their museum work in Pickens. Shiloh Rosenwald School provided an example of museum curation, visitor management, volunteerism, museum leadership, and local fundraising. The Tuskegee archive helped community members gain a deeper understanding of collecting historical data and the power involved in amassing historical data to unsilence the story of African American life in Pickens. Furthermore, connecting with other community led Rosenwald School restoration projects took Pickensville’s work out of isolation. Visiting Shiloh gave our members with a sense of national connection.They could now make connections between our work and others. They could now begin to see others as resources for additional data, knowledge, and potential partnerships.
Finally, the oral history workshop helped alumni put history into action by empowering them to collect and document the childhood stories of their Rosenwald School classmates. Overall, these experiences empowered me as a historical researcher to put my knowledge and skills to action by sharing what I have learned to empower and uplift the community. At the same time, the community empowered and uplifted me as I deepened my understanding of how local communities preserve and activate their histories to document their lives and for public education.
Our learning and growth over the museum development process led us to consider how we would attract visitors to this historic space. We decided to embark upon an educational campaign that would predate the museum’s grand opening. We designed and held several “lunch and learns” in the community. We distributed flyers at local institutions (e.g., churches, coffee shops, local businesses, etc.). We also asked local leaders and community members to share flyers with neighbors and friends. Additionally, once construction was nearly completed in the museum room, we held a soft launch in which we invited community members, family reunions, and leaders to get a sneak peek of our work.
Given that Rosenwald’s history is a part of America’s national history, we also tried to spread the word throughout Alabama. One such effort was to apply for recognition with the Bicentennial Celebration Legacy Project Awards. We won recognition and were featured in the media highlighting the statewide celebration. These efforts attracted visitors from other Alabama counties and the local news. Our grand opening, which took place in June 2019, attracted hundreds of visitors.
Historical Research, Activism, and Empowerment
On my first visit to my ancestral home in Pickens County, Alabama, I was met with a series of questions that endured from my teen years into my adulthood. As an adult, I learned that my seemingly personal familial questions concerning the history of Black childhood were connected to lasting historical questions related to historical silencing and African American education. Returning to Pickens to answer these questions has changed my life as a human and a scholar. As a human, I have gained an intimate understanding of memory’s significance in the lives of individuals and communities – and particularly communities of color. Much has been done to disconnect African Americans from our intimate and collective pasts. We must continue to find these stories and tell them to ourselves and the public. Understanding who we have been across the enduring arrow of time fuels our momentum toward and into the future.
My work in Pickens has taught me to ride this arrow – scholarship in one hand and action in the other. I have learned that creating monuments must be a part of my work as a critical historian. As a historian, it is not enough to enter a community, extract data, create knowledge, and – leave. No. My scholarship must also make a difference however and whenever it can. Taking opportunities to use historical data to inform community uplift. The creation of local monuments – like local museums – is one way to help communities foster transformation through unearthing and telling their histories. Historical action breeds empowerment, supports education and community uplift. It has become clear to me more than ever; like Bree Newsome had the power to climb a flagpole and take down a monument – our communities have the power to take up monuments. We are the collectors, archivists, curators, orators, and educators. We, too, can shape important public reflections of the past.
Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.Zora Neale Hurston
Monuments can hold contested perceptions of history – they can hail, heal, or hurt. Monuments may constantly be calling us to publicly act; to take down, to build, or rebuild the past as we make sense of it. As a researcher, my experience in Pickens County has shown me how historians can use our scholarship to build monuments from memory. Using community-based historical inquiry to gather data (i.e., oral histories, material objects, and archival documents), leveraging local knowledge of historic buildings, restoration, lived experiences, and my knowledge of museum studies, we were able to call history into action. Specifically, as we unearthed previously silenced histories of Rosenwald Schools and Black children’s childhood educational experiences, we expanded and shifted the public version of historical truth in Pickens County. Our work culminated in the development of the Historic Pickensville Rosenwald School Museum & Community Center.
We are proud of what we have done. We have contributed to the history of African American education. We have contributed to the public’s understanding of the history of Rosenwald Schools and Black childhood in Pickens County, Alabama. We have become friends across generations – descendants from the same place. We are evidence that the dreams of the ancestors have momentum. Since our opening in 2019, we have launched a website, held talks and tours for the University of Alabama, hosted family reunions, sponsored recreational community programs and educational events. The Historic Pickensville Rosenwald School Museum & Community Center is once again riding on the long arrow of history. Our work continues…
I would like to recognize the tireless efforts of the entire Pickens County Rosenwald School alumni across Hopewell, Mamiesville, Pickens County Training School, Pickensville, Elbethel, and Salem Schools. Without these souls, nothing would have been possible. Special thanks to Ms. Deloris Ransom, Mr. Claude Ransom (RIP), Ms. Paulette Locke Newberns, Mrs. Caroline Locke Wright, Mrs. Mary Locke Fuseyamore, Mrs. Amanda McKinstry, Mr. Willie Glass, Ms. Ora Coleman Alston, Mr. William Petty, Mr. Fate Jones, Ms. Trudy Connor (RIP), The Wilkinson Family, Mr. William Gore (RIP), my Neal-Richardson Cousins, Ella Richardson, Scil Richardson, Perlinca Richardson, Surnell McCrary, Tahj Smith, Peter Richardson, my daughter, Ella Kazembe, and my Great Auntie, Mrs. Sylvia Richardson. May her memory be a blessing.
This blog post is dedicated to Professor David K. Cohen, my mentor and friend. Dr. Cohen held excitement for my scholarship and creativity. He deeply supported my research and ideas. David succumbed to an illness just weeks before my dissertation defense, of which he was a committee member. Through this post, I honor and thank him for all he has given in support of my humanity, scholarship, and historical action. Saying your name, David. May your memory be a blessing.
Dr. Kimberly C. Ransom
Dr. Kimberly C. Ransom is an interdisciplinary historian who studies the History of African American Education and the History of Childhood in the 20th century. Her current research examines the oral histories and material objects of Black children who once attended segregated schools in the Deep South during the Jim Crow Era (1940-1969). As a public scholar and artist, Kimberly also uses her historical research to create public exhibits related to African American childhood in and around schools. In her most recent project, she has worked in partnership with her dissertation respondents to create a local museum in the sole remaining Rosenwald Schoolhouse in Pickens County, Alabama.
Kimberly has received several fellowships and awards for her research and leadership including the 2019 NAEd Spencer Fellowship, the 2019 Rackham Dissertation Fellowship, the 2018 Rackham Public Scholarship Fellowship, the 2017 Rackham Public Scholarship Grant, the 2015 Jackson Scholar Award, the 2013 University of Chicago President’s Diversity Leadership Award, the 2011 Chicago Community Trust Fellowship, and the 2010 New York University Women of Color Policy Fellowship. She earned her Ph.D. in Educational Studies from the University of Michigan, M.A. from DePaul University, and B.S. from Bradley University. Prior to beginning her doctoral studies, Kimberly was the founding executive director of the University of Chicago Collegiate Scholars Program, a three-year enrichment program committed to preparing Chicago Public Schools students for admission and success at elite colleges across the nation. Today the Program has over 1,000 alumni attending elite universities across the nation; nearly half have attended the University of Chicago. Kimberly has served on several boards that are committed to the advancement of youth of color, including the Young People’s Project in Boston, MA.