By Crystal Burns
Alumni of Trenton Rosenwald High School rallied Saturday morning to organize an effort to save their old school.
Hollis Skinner, formerly of Trenton now living in Jackson, is spearheading the campaign to preserve the campus located on East Second Street.
“We’re trying to save Rosenwald because we feel it deserves to be saved,” Skinner told a crowd of about 50 people. “It’s our first rally; it might not be our last.”
Last fall, the state announced that the building would be partially demolished. In 2015, Tennessee State University (TSU) Foundation, the fundraising arm of the university, purchased the former Rosenwald school from the Trenton Special School District for $1. TSU operates a Head Start program on the west end of the building, and the foundation invested $300,000 to $400,000 into that portion of the facility.
The foundation, however, didn’t have the money to renovate the rest of the building or demolish it, so leaders approached the university about transferring the property to TSU.
Dick Tracy, executive director of facilities development for the Tennessee Board of Regents, explained the process to The Gazette in September 2018. He 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. They estimated renovations at $6 million to $8 million and added that it would take about $100,000 a year to maintain the facility.
The consultants recommended partial demolition, and the state building commission agreed.
Skinner argues that the building is a resource that should be utilized for community purposes. His ideas include a computer lab and senior citizens center.
Navery Moore, a 1961 graduate, lives in Nashville. He returned home to deliver the keynote address at the rally and encouraged alumni to get organized and put a proposal together that they can show local officials.
“There are a number of graduates all over the country willing to assist you,” he said. “But saving Rosenwald could be the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got to come up with something to do with it. We’ve got to think outside of the box.”
Skinner said he doesn’t know when the state plans to begin demolition. He said he spoke to Gov. Bill Lee at the Strawberry Festival earlier this year, and Lee promised him a meeting. Skinner said when he followed up with the governor’s office, he was told it was a local issue.
Skinner has also spoken to the Gibson County Commission and Trenton City Council.
The state would sell the building back to a government entity for $1, Skinner said.
“You have to show a need for it,” Moore emphasized. “When you do that, then you can get something done.”
Greg Bonds and Sam Doaks also spoke at the rally, saying it’s time for younger generations to get involved. The duo has spent the summer talking with others about starting a youth program for teens and young adults.
“We need everybody,” Bonds said. “We need money. We need support. We need to get it real organized.”
One young man, who said he is 32 years old, said saving Rosenwald should be easier.
“It’s no reason y’all should have to go through all this to save the school,” he said. “It’s no reason that Trenton should go through any of this. Trenton runs the county. Everything in the county has to come through Trenton. People in Trenton don’t support nothing.”
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.
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 and included grades 1-8. Grades 9-12 were eventually added. The last class graduated in 1968, and grades 9-12 were then transferred to Peabody High School.
Trenton Rosenwald became a middle school with black and white students attending. In 1996, Trenton Rosenwald Middle School was moved to a new building near the Peabody campus, and the former school was used as a Community Resource Center.
The original Rosenwald High School burned in 1953.