Growing up during a time of historical significance

Published 10:48 am Wednesday, November 17, 2010

by Clarence Foster

Rosenwald Grammar School, 3 miles southwest of Zuni, was the 40-year (est. 1920) hub of Freetown.

It sat at the intersection of the present-day Seacock Chapel Road, the lane to Mr. Robert Eley’s home and the northwest corner of the Roger Stanton property.

A well and pump sat there in the northeast corner of the 1½ -acre school grounds. A smallish two-story white building, the Odd Fellows Lodge, stood directly across the road. My mother, Jennie Fulgham Foster Hamlin, says she attended Sunday school on its ground floor, around 1930.

“Freetown,” a rare and somewhat mysterious utterance, was a small “colored,” (common parlance up to the middle-‘50s), community between Doles and Diggs Crossroads.

Historically significant?

Certainly, in Rosenwald there is historical significance. Our solidly built deep yellow structure bore the last name of Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish chief executive officer of Sears and Roebuck. That financier matched funds raised by negroes for the construction (1912-1932) of several thousand similar schools throughout the South.

The great legacy of Booker T. Washington, (born in 1856 and raised in Virginia, somewhere around Danville), lies more so in his galvanizing leadership in this project than his other great educational achievements, including his 19th century promotion of Tuskeegee Institute.

An extension on the front of the building was called the vestibule. It was an entrance alcove that provided space for a large container of water, with waterspout extending above a small sink. A small anteroom, yet plenty of space for dispensing the old schoolhouse brand of justice, (we’d sit in our seats listening to the licks, waiting for the poor devil to cry out…planning snide remarks).

Doors from two rooms opened in here. A substantial accordion divider separated the interior space into the two wings/rooms. The first through third grade in the west wing and the fourth through seventh, and principal, in the east.

If you stooped to look beneath the building, you could see clean through to the other side. Some old buildings rose as much as a yard above the ground.

You know, there’s more to these old pumps than meets the eye. They seem to work through the creation of a vacuum that draws (siphons?) water from deep within the well.

At times, it had to be primed, whereby you’d have to pour a bit of water into the pump to help promote the vacuum. The careful knew to always save a bit of water for this purpose.

In this process, the now fully engaged pump handle would require a lot more pressure to draw the water. It could slip from the hand of the careless and slam back into a wiser, though bloodied, forehead.

The truth is that yesterday’s rural life was full of all sorts of lurking mishaps.

A woodshed stood maybe 10 yards to the rear and slightly westward.

The boys’ toilet (outhouse), a common two-seater, had, to its side, an open-front rock-strewn ground urinal. Across the front of both, was an L-shaped modesty panel that formed a roofless enclosure: the Madison Square Gardens of wild pubescent tales.

This, the School of Birds and Bees, stood off on the southwest corner of the campus.

The girls’ toilet stood beyond and to the east of the woodshed.

On the west, in a gentle, almost imperceptible sloping toward the woods, was a small playground: a grass-studded quagmire worn home in telltale quantities.

That old adage “necessity is the mother of invention” played into our sometimes curious brand of baseball. Our 4-inch solid rubber ball (and makeshift bat) was suitable in relatively small spaces.

We would often suspend formal rules, toward the end of recess. A batter running to first would have to be tagged out, and to add further zest, he was allowed to run out of the baseline. In fact, the tag might be made back in the classroom, under the very nose of the ever-vigilant Selena M. Grasty (1918-1998).

If all else failed, a particularly determined fielder might be obliged to carry the ball with him, just in case the runner was spotted on the weekend.

School convened at 9 a.m., with the morning devotions: The Pledge of Allegiance, a couple of songs, such as “My Bonnie lives over the ocean, my Bonnie lies over the sea…,” or “Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam, and the skies are not cloudy all day. …” Adventures in surrealism.

The day would be drawn to a close at 3:15 p.m. with a prayer and a song: “Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh. Shadows of the evening…”

At the Christmas break, and again at the start of summer, the plain wooden floors would be scoured to a golden yellow. A considerable quantity of what appeared to be sawdust, sloshed with what appeared to be motor oil, was laboriously swept across the floor and into legend.

Thirty to 60 kids made up the student body, rising and falling with the ins and outs of the tenant farmers and itinerant laborers.

CLARENCE FOSTER is a resident of Southampton County and 1963 graduate of Hayden High School.