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Old Rosenwald School to be partially demolished

By Crystal Burns

The old Trenton Rosenwald High School could be partially demolished next year.

Dick Tracy, executive director of facilities development for the Tennessee Board of Regents, which operates the state’s colleges and universities, explained the process in a phone interview with The Gazette last week.

The building, former home of Trenton Rosenwald High School and later Trenton Middle School, belongs to the Tennessee State University (TSU) Foundation, a fundraising arm of TSU. The Trenton Special School District deeded it to the foundation for $1 in 2015.

TSU operates a Head Start program on the west end of the building. The foundation invested $300,000-$400,000 into that portion of the facility, and TSU will continue to run Head Start there, Tracy said.

The foundation, however, doesn’t have the money to renovate the rest of the building or tear it down. Leaders approached the university about transferring the property to TSU, which must go through the state building commission. Tracy said the state sent architect and engineering consultants to Trenton, and they agreed that, with the exception of Head Start, the building is all but condemned. The necessary renovations could cost $6 million-$8 million, he said. It would take an additional $100,000 or so a year to maintain the large facility. The consultants recommended partial demolition that would spare Head Start.

Since the TSU Foundation does not have the money to pay for demolition, the Tennessee Board of Regents approached the state building commission about the property transfer. The commission also agreed to the demolition.

Trenton Rosenwald was built in 1928. It was one of 5,000 Rosenwald schools built in the South and one of 364 in Tennessee. Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist and president of Sears Roebuck, built the state-of-the-art schools for African-American children. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “The effort has been called the most important initiative to advance black education in the early 20th century. Attending a Rosenwald School put a student at the vanguard of education for southern African-American children. The architecture of the schools was a tangible statement of the equality of all children, and their programming made them a focal point of community identity and aspirations.”

The Rosenwald fund contributed $2,100 for the Trenton school, and the local African-American community donated $1,500. The remaining $11,000 came from public sources. The original school was a one-story, seven-classroom building.

For over two decades, Trenton Rosenwald functioned as part of the segregated public education system, offering grades 1-8 and serving as a feeder school to the only Gibson Co. high school for blacks, which was located 12 miles away in Milan. Fire destroyed Trenton Rosenwald in 1953, and officials quickly approved funding for a new seven-classroom building. Immediately following the completion of the new school, it is likely that the Gibson County School System added more classrooms, laboratories and other amenities in order to match the facilities available at local white schools.

Trenton Rosenwald graduated its last class of seniors in 1968. Grades 9-12 were then transferred to Trenton’s white high school, Peabody, and Trenton Rosenwald became a middle school with both white and black students attending. The local school board changed the name to Trenton Middle School, a move fiercely opposed by the African American community.

In 1996, Trenton Rosenwald Middle School was moved to a new building constructed near Peabody High School on the Highway 45 Bypass. The Trenton Special School District kept the old Rosenwald school as a Community Resource Center. In addition to the TSU Head Start program, the center also housed Gibson Co. Adult Education at one time, however, the building remained largely vacant, which contributed to its current state.

“I still feel like they should’ve found other uses for the building,” a disappointed Hollis Skinner said last week. Skinner, an alumnus of Trenton Rosenwald High School, spoke at a state building commission meeting in December 2017 to ask members to save his alma mater. In recent years, Skinner has worked with the Center for Historical Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University to try to have the school placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Since learning of the building’s possible fate last year, Skinner has been communicating with Tracy, who said the remediation plan would include documenting the building.

“We would acknowledge the building,” he said. “I understand the significance.”

The process of transferring the property from the foundation to the campus could take a few months, and Tracy doesn’t expect demolition until after the first of the year, he said. He also said he is willing to give the building to a government entity that would commit to making the necessary renovations. Tracy further said he would make a deal to sell the property to any interested party, but the state would have to recoup enough money to buy a lot and build a new facility for Head Start.

Tracy may be reached at 615-366-4433.

Nancy Hall, Fred Culp Historical Museum, contributed to this article.

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