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One room, endless stories: The fight to save Leon County's African American Schoolhouses

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Published: Feb. 27, 2020 at 2:59 PM EST
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By: Jacob Murphey | WCTV Eyewitness News

February 27, 2020

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) — Even a brief tour of Leon County's landmarks uncovers state-issued historical markers. Florida takes pride in showcasing its rich, complex history.

But there aren't any markers in Leon County recognizing a crucial piece of Black history: one-room schoolhouses from the 19th century.

At least 52 schoolhouses popped up across the county in the aftermath of the Civil War. According to local historian Althemese Barnes, the schools were built on plantations as a way to keep cheap labor close to the fields.

Even so, newly freed slaves made a commitment for the future.

"Out of their passion for education, [they] wanted to make sure there was an institution through which they could educate their children," Barnes said.

Barnes has devoted her life to preserving the past. She helped create the John G. Riley Center and Museum, which highlights achievements made during the often-overlooked Reconstruction era.

"I think it's important to have that trail of how people moved from one level through resilience [and] fortitude," she said.

In the late '90s, a FAMU student helped Barnes publish a collection of photos, depicting every African American schoolhouse in Leon County. Barnes believed that survey was the first of its kind. The book includes pages of oral histories, taking readers inside the classroom.

Those paragraphs are now priceless. A majority of those schoolhouses no longer exist. Barnes believes only four remain in the county.

Raney School has survived the test of time. It sits on the property of St. Peter Primitive Baptist Church off Centerville Road. Generations grew up going to school inside it's white walls.

M. E. Williams, 97, arrived in 1954 to teach. She said she wore many hats, serving as secretary and lunchroom manager as well.

"The students were very respectful," she said. "The teachers were always addressed as Mrs."

Her daughter, Valerie, attended first grade at Raney.

"They were preparing you to go into the outside world and succeed," she said.

By 1968, desegregation opened new doors, but closed others. Teacher Dorothy Henry remembered the melancholy mood surrounding the school's final days.

"It was a really sad time," she said. "We had everything here, and our children were some of the best."

As decades pass, the fight turns to preserving these pieces of history so the stories will be told for generations to come. Efforts are underway to get those state-issued historical markers placed outside Raney School.

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