July 14, 2008

Harrington Schoolhouse Gets a New Lease on Life

By Brandee A. Thomas, The Brunswick News, Ga.

Jul. 14--It sits a ways back from the road, slightly obscured from view by overgrown tree limbs and other underbrush.

You can't tell by looking at it, but the little building on South Harrington Road, with white-washed paneling that has been bruised and battered by the elements over the years, is a significant piece of the history of St. Simons Island.

The one-room school was constructed in the 1920s and educated the African-American children on St. Simons Island until desegregation scattered the students elsewhere in the late 1960s.

Like some of the wood paneling on the building, history has a way of disappearing with time, but the St. Simons Island African-American Heritage Coalition is working to make sure that the Harrington Schoolhouse remains a part of the island's historic framework.

The organization has hired Greening Youth, a Snellville based greens pace acquisition and environmental education firm, to help renovate the structure.

"In a way, the school has been a part of our organization since it was founded in 2000," said Ronald Upshaw, president of the St. Simons Island African-American Heritage Coalition. "A few of our members actually went to the Harrington school.

"It became one of our central missions to see if we could have the school restored and certified as a historical structure."

Two years ago, the coalition received a grant from the Watson Brown Foundation to do an analysis of the structure to ensure that it was salvageable.

"We brought in a historic preservation architect and he did a very thorough analysis," Upshaw said. "He determined that it needed extensive work, but that it could in fact be restored."

The first step in the restoration process was acquiring the 12-acre property that surrounds the school.

"When we first started the process, the school was located on heir property, but one of our members -- Isadora Hunter -- was one of the heirs," Upshaw said. "She sold her portion of the property to the St. Simons Island Land Trust and Glynn County and they used that as an opening to get the other heirs to agree to relinquish their portions."

Since the coalition does not actually own the schoolhouse property, Upshaw has slowed -- but not stopped -- restoration efforts.

"We are working towards getting a 99-year lease for the property and county officials have assured us that won't be a problem, so we are proceeding in good faith," Upshaw said.

"We've started the renovation process in small ways. The county has cleared the land to make it more accessible and we are in the process of selecting bids for fumigating the place for termites."

The ultimate goal is for the restored building to be accessible to the community and to be surrounded by a nature-preserve like park.

"With the building itself, we want to try and retain as much of the original look as possible -- inside and out," said Mike Fynn, Greening Youth project manager.

"We were hired by the coalition to start putting together a plan for the renovation of the schoolhouse and a plan for the building after the renovations are complete.

"After the renovations are done, it is important to have a plan so that it can sustain itself."

While the schoolhouse doesn't seem like much to average passers-by, Upshaw's organization would like to see that changed in the future.

"We plan to eventually use it as a place for community meetings or maybe as a museum for African-American artifacts and history," Upshaw said.

"We would also like to see it incorporated in some sort of tour as a part of the Gullah-Geechee corridor. It could be one of the central stopping places in Glynn County."

Upshaw says the next step in the renovation process is securing financial backing for the project through private and business donations, as well as grant funding.

"We are trying to pull together community support and involvement on this project," Upshaw said.

"We are trying to attract not only the immediate community surrounding the school, but we also want to expand to the extended community."


To learn more about the project visit www.ssafricanamerheritage.org or www.greeningyouth.com.


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