A Night to Remember, Indeed

From the day Global Outreach Developments Int’l purchased the ‘old school’ building, Stateland Elementary, that served as a segregated school for the Hopewell neighborhood and six other surrounding all black communities, we knew the responsibility we had to preserve the history of the school, the community, and the lives of those who lived during America’s Jim Crow era. Years were spent gathering information, recording stories of neighbors, and searching high and low for old photos. We looked for photos and memorabilia that depicted life in Hopewell starting in the 1920’s when Hopewell children attended a two room schoolhouse, to the 1950’s when the new consolidated school was built, to the time period after the Civil Rights Movement and integration when the ‘black’ school was abandoned even though it was a mere eleven years old. Stateland’s all black students integrated into the schools situated in all white neighborhoods. Integration, it seemed, went one way and not the other.

Fifty years after the closing of the school, the doors to Stateland Elementary were opened to former students and Hopewell neighbors for a “Night to Remember.” On July 7th we entertained over thirty guests, most of whom attended Stateland Elementary in the 50’s and 60’s. One gentleman, who attended the two room elementary schoolhouse that served Hopewell kids in the late 20’s, remembered the days before the ‘new consolidated school’ was built. He shared the circumstances that resulted in Hopewell being chosen as the site for the school that served seven all-black communities.  “I remember when they built this school. It was considered state of the art. It was the biggest thing that ever happened in Hopewell. In fact, a friend of mine that dropped out of high school in order to help with the construction of this school building.” There was a momentary pause as people reflected on the irony of this statement.

As they shared a meal together, stories were exchanged from person to person, table to table. Several took to the microphone to reminisce. As storytellers were speaking, some of the characters’ names were not coming to mind. “It was me and....um....those two fellows that were in my class and used to...”  At this point, the audience began to shout out names as everyone tried to fill in the memory lapses. After a number of options, the speaker would hear the name he was searching for and the story would continue. It wasn’t just age that had dimmed memory, but time. Most of the people in the room hadn’t visited this moment in their lives for many years. “This is the first time since the mid-60’s that I’ve even been in this building,” was a comment made by several alumni that evening. In their minds, they were going back in time to when schools were segregated and the teachers, all of them black, were revered. They were remembering when the community and school were inextricably connected. They were remembering with gratitude the lives of so many that had passed--those who invested in them as children and young adults. Memories were filling the room. Even for those of us who didn’t experience this particular history, you could not help but feel fortunate to be able to hear the past coming alive.

One of the many highlights of the evening was the impromptu singing that emerged. Someone started singing Stateland Elementary’s alma mater and the rest of the room joined in. As one might imagine, the chorus was firmly embedded in their minds, but the whole of the song took a concerted effort to bring it to memory.

Another moment that brought tears to some of the Hopewell neighbors and former Stateland students was seeing the Hopewell History Wall exhibited in the front lobby of the ‘old school.’ Their story was on display for all to see. In fact, it’s the first thing you’ll see as you walk in the front entrance at G.O.D. All of the effort of the last several years of listening and recording stories, searching for old photographs, checking facts, chronicling the history, and displaying it in a prominent place in the building now had come to fruition--the history makers surveyed this representation of their story and approved.

Good memories are good to remember. This night, many proclaimed good memories while not forgetting that these stories were set in the Jim Crow era. Although the ugly reality of racism was always there, it did not frame the stories, it did not dampen the good that happened. Racism took a backseat to the recollections of faith, family, and community that the Hopewell neighbors and Stateland Elementary School alumni chose to declare that night. They were remembering the good and even the not-so-good with positivity and gratitude. “Remember how the [white] neighborhoods around Hopewell had street lights?” questioned one of the eldest guest.  “They had street lights, but we had the moon.”

Hear it for yourself!