On Daufuskie Island, one of a chain of sea islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, sits a one-room schoolhouse called the Jane Hamilton School. From the outside, it looks very much like a Rosenwald School, but it was actually fully funded by the immediate community and constructed by local tradesman as well as WPA workers. The Rosenwald Fund provided funding to over 5,000 schools across the south, but this historical building is an example of the many additional schools that were built not with Rosenwald Fund money but with Rosenwald School plans. Beyond providing architectural plans, the Rosenwald Fund’s school-building program served as a demonstration to all people that communities suffering under segregation could come together to improve local education facilities even if assistance from state and federal government was withheld.
The school was built on Daufuskie Island (near Savannah, Georgia) for the Gullah children of the island community. The Gullah people are the descendants of slaves from West and Central Africa whose language and culture incorporates influences from the African nations their ancestors lived in centuries ago. For many years, even into the twentieth century, this was a place that was somewhat cut off from the mainland (even today there is no road connection) and this isolation served to preserve the vibrant Gullah folk culture and language, especially after an influx of freed slaves moved to this region in the wake of the Civil War. Today, the Gullah culture is dispersing geographically to an extent (the Gullah population on sea islands like Daufuskie has declined) but there are local and national movements to preserve cultural landmarks like the Jane Hamilton School. A 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, by Julie Dash, that tells an inter-generational story in a Gullah community around the turn of the twentieth century, introduced many people to the Gullah culture.
One aspect of the Rosenwald Schools that is often recalled by alumni is the large windows and the buildings’ orientation towards the sun (to maximize natural light). This style is clearly evident in the Jane Hamilton School: one side of the building is full of large windows (see the photo below) while the other side (see the above photo) utilized small “breeze windows,” placed high up to allow airflow to the classroom while blocking out the view of the street so children would not be distracted by passersby.
Today, the Jane Hamilton School serves as the Gullah Learning Center, a community center where elections are held, with historical exhibits about the school and the Gullah community and a library. The building (which dates from 1940, 8 years after Julius Rosenwald’s death) is a great example of historical preservation as well as a demonstration of the extended influence of the Rosenwald Fund even beyond the 5,000+ schools it directly funded.
By Michael Rose