A new civic group, Rosenwald Revamped, has formed to preserve the history and shepherd the future of the former Rosenwald-Felts School in Galax.
The group has been meeting and working on obtaining 501c3 status, said Sylvia Richardson, president of Rosenwald Revamped, who addressed Galax City Council at their March 13 meeting.
Later, council appointed two members to attend meetings of Rosenwald Revamped.
“We haven’t really spoken to you guys about anything to do with Rosenwald since the meeting on Nov. 14,” Richardson said, referring to a night when supporters turned out to oppose the city’s possible sale of the building.
The building, which was used for multiple functions and organizations over the years, is located in “The Hill,” a historically Black neighborhood on the east side of the city. It was built as one of 5,000 schools across the South for Black students, a collaboration between educator, speaker and frequent presidential advisor Booker T. Washington and German-Jewish immigrant Julius Rosenwald, who was the president of Sears, Roebuck & Co. The Galax school had the name “Felts” added to honor the local family that donated land for it to be built on.
Today, it’s owned by the city and leased to Rooftop of Virginia CAP’s Head Start program.
“We have systematically been trying to go about the things that will get us to our destination,” Richardson continued. “The first thing we did was, we had a formal committee with elected officers. And we have a vision statement and a mission statement, and we are also in the process of developing a business plan.”
Their mission statement, provided in a handout to council, is “preserving African American history while turning lives around with open doors.”
Their purposes for the building include “offering classes on cultural awareness of the rich history of African-Americans from the Galax community and Rosenwald-Felts School,” creating a museum of school memorabilia, a fundraising site for various organizations, an educational center, a place that offers outdoor activities like the annual King of the Hill Basketball Tournament, and workshops on topics like parenting, drug addiction recovery, financial literacy and entrepreneurship.
However, she said, “We’re kind of restricted because we really don’t know where we stand with this council. We’re working toward an end, but what is the plan?”
Rosenwald Revamped is trying to find out “what’s happening with the fact that Rooftop of Virginia is leasing the building. When is that lease up? Just a few different things. And we wanted to know if there’s going to be a commitment to our committee, and to the community. We want to sort of see where we are at this point.”
Joe Steffen — a Galax native who now lives and practices law in Savannah, Georgia — also spoke to council and said he had made the 6.5-hour drive up to address them about the Rosenwald-Felts School building.
Steffen was a council member 40 years prior, and noted that the downtown trees (referenced in another portion of the meeting) were planted by the council he sat on at the time.
“Rosenwald-Felts School is something that only exists in a very few places now in this country,” he said. “It is something that has to be preserved, and it has to be preserved in a way that is honest to its history. Now I don’t know any other way you can do that, than to have a major element of that project be to celebrate the African-American people who grew up within those schools.”
He noted that the late U.S. senator and Civil Rights leader John Lewis and late poet Maya Angelou had both come up through Rosenwald schools. He added that, of more than 5,000 such schools created, only a small percentage still exist.
“So I’m here to drive up the mountain to advocate that you all do everything possible to preserve that — not as an African-American issue, but as an American history issue,” he said.
Chauncey Robinson, Rosenwald Revamped vice president, also briefly addressed council, echoing Steffen’s words. “I just want to remind you that there’s history here in Galax, and it must be preserved and documented,” he said, before thanking them.
Acting City Manager Keith Barker suggested that council appoint two or three members to sit on a committee to report back to the rest of council, to keep everyone informed. He reminded them that if three council members join and plan to attend, then the meetings must be advertised.
Council Member Evan Henck and Vice Mayor Beth White volunteered to be on the committee, while Council Member Sharon Ritchie agreed to be an alternate if either became unavailable. Council voted to approve these appointments, except for Council Member Travis Haynes, who was absent.
Rosenwald Revamped meets at the Galax Public Library every third Thursday of the month at 7 p.m.