Mars Hill Rosenwald School Reclaimed
The almost forgotten Anderson Elementary School in Mars Hill is being reborn. It evolved from a school for black children built in 1928 to enable African Americans still weighed down by the impact of slavery to seek a better life.
The black community remained in western North Carolina as slavery ended for the small population of enslaved there. A split in pro-Confederate and pro-Union sentiment locally-led many blacks to move from Yancey to the Union-leaning Madison County at the Civil War’s end.
For generations, as segregation limited options and opportunity for blacks, the school, originally Long Ridge School, was a stepping-stone to life beyond the farm or the kitchen. Then integration happened and the school closed in 1965 to become a relic of a bygone time.
Such schools were the vision of Booker T. Washington, a black educator and founder of Tuskegee Institute, who shared that vision of lifting blacks out of poverty through education with Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears and Roebuck, who also had the vision and resources to help make it a reality. He created the Rosenwald Fund in 1917.
The fund provided capitol for 5,000 schools across the South, including 800 in North Carolina, more than any other state. Washington believed that self-help and education would lead to social mobility and better lives for blacks, and Rosenwald concurred. To receive $750 grants, the community and school district had to raise matching funds for school construction. Many communities eagerly pitched in to make the dream of education come true for their children.
In 1930, Addison Elementary was known as the Long Ridge Rosenwald School and welcomed black students from Marshall also. It had one open room that was divided into two spaces. One side was for grades one through four, the other for grades five through eight. The lone teacher moved between the younger and older students. The school served the region.
“Our bus went to Hot Springs, and I lived in Marshall,” recalls Sarah Hertt. “It wouldn’t hold over 15 students. There were not that many of us.”
In 1959 the school became Anderson Elementary, named to honor a local enslaved craftsman. Alumni of the school remember it fondly, as a place they got a good education, even if the books were all hand-me-downs of whatever was available. The teacher had lots of discretion, and when they had books of Shakespeare they read and performed Shakespeare — the entire school. She also taught about leaves and vines and the natural environment of the region. They started each day with prayer and devotion and felt a kinship as a family.
“That’s where it all started,” Herrt continued. “I thought the school was so special. I am so glad it was saved.”
The physical reminder of this history might have been lost. A farmer asked the Board of Education to demolish the dilapidated building in 2003. That request was denied, discussions began, and in 2011 the Friends of the Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School group was formed. There was a ribbon-cutting and celebration of rehabilitation progress in August 2019. The Madison County School Board is formulating plans to bring life again to this once vibrant structure.