Tire tracks lined with live-oak trees lead to a white one-story building, far back from Janiero Road. In the yard, a small pile of burning brush sends smoke drifting over a rusted swing set. Once, there was a baseball diamond here, an outhouse around back and children everywhere. Now, volunteers work hard to keep the yard tidy and the building usable. The building is the Holt’s Chapel Community Center and an original Rosenwald School.
“When I see this building, I see history that needs to be told,” says Teresa Badger, 68, who majored in history at North Carolina Central University in Durham and was born in Pamlico County. She is the president of the Holt’s Chapel Community Center, which she helped register as a nonprofit in 2012. The mission of the center is to serve as a resource foreducational, social, economic and cultural enrichment programs in Pamlico County and continue the interracial and interfaith relations that can help often divided communities move toward mutual understanding and shared goals. Originally, she says, this Rosenwald school, in the town of Oriental, was called the Holt’s Chapel Colored School.
“We don’t have any idea who Holt is,” she says. “I did research.”
Rosenwald schools originated in the early 1900s, a collaboration between Booker T. Washington, an educator and philanthropist who was president of the Tuskegee Institute, and Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. The schools were created to educate Black children living in the rural South in the years of segregation. The Rosenwald school in Oriental educated children from kindergarten through 8th grade until 1963. That year, local public schools desegregated and the Holt's Chapel school closed. Like most Rosenwald schools, it fell into disrepair. Eventually, the school board, which owned the building, gifted it to two local churches as a much-needed community center. It is one of two former Rosenwald schools in Pamlico County. The other is in Mesic.
Today, in Oriental, Badger and Sarah Goodnight, a volunteer, sit at a long plastic table with folding chairs in the main room of the school. The room still has two original wooden sliding divider walls. Badger and Goodnight are organizing an upcoming community event here to celebrate the school’s 100th anniversary and making lists of what needs to be done. They plan to offer food, live music and a bounce house, and they hope the proceeds will fund repairs, a new coat of paint and computers for a computer literacy class for seniors. Currently, the center is used for a Black History Month program, musical and cultural programs, festivals and bingo. “It would be nice to have community gardens. Proper playground. Picnic area. Baseball diamond,” Badger says.
“Back in the day every Black church had a baseball team, and they played here. I miss those days. I wish we could get the men involved like that today.”
Badger works with an oxygen tank by her side, a tube leading to her nose. She insists on working with only 45 percent of her lung function—the result of lung disease, though she has never smoked.
“Oh, Lord, my husband told me a story,” Badger continues. She has a cough that is thick and relentless. Her husband, Leon Badger, 69, who attended the Oriental school, lived down a dirt road. “When it rained, the buses couldn’t make it down the road,” she says, “so they had to get state-owned [dump] trucks and pick up the kids and bring them down the road for the bus.”
Some had no access to buses. Another alum, Badger says, remembers walking five miles to get here. “He would walk, make a fire, warm up, walk, make a fire--two to three fires before getting here.”
Three teachers who worked there are still living. Carthenia Mann, Willie Sutton and Annie Hall Wilie. After the school closed, Wilie was hired at Pamlico County Training School, Sutton found employment in Wilson, North Carolina, and Mann was employed with New Bern City Schools.
Badger inspects the building. She pulls a string on the ceiling to turn on a light and straightens a framed photo of Booker T. Washington that hangs on a wall. She looks through aging children’s books on a shelf.
“Maya Angelou, John Lewis, Horace Julian Bond and Eugene Robinson went to Rosenwald schools,” says Badger. Angelou was a renowned memoirist and poet; Lewis was a U.S. congressman; Bond served in the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives. All three were civil rights activists. Robinson is a columnist and editor at The Washington Post. There used to be nearly 5,000 Rosenwald schools; fewer than 800 are standing today.
“It’s not Black history or white history,” Badger says, speaking of what the building and its artifacts represent. “It’s really the history of the county.”
If you would like to donate to the Holt’s Chapel Community Center, please send a check to their 501(c)(3) at:
P.O. Box 616
Oriental, NC 28571
For questions about the center, call Teresa Badger at 252-249-1251.