Merlene Davis: Reunion to mark 50th anniversary of closing of segregated school

From left, Rosenwald-Dunbar School alumni, Claudette Ison, Carolyn White, Ann Walker, Anna "Poochie" Richardson, Ed Prentice, Jeanette Higgins, and Hallie Miller in front of the Bradley Building in Nicholasville, Ky., on July 11, 2013. Alumni are celebrating 50the year of the school's closing. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
From left, Rosenwald-Dunbar School alumni, Claudette Ison, Carolyn White, Ann Walker, Anna "Poochie" Richardson, Ed Prentice, Jeanette Higgins, and Hallie Miller in front of the Bradley Building in Nicholasville, Ky., on July 11, 2013. Alumni are celebrating 50the year of the school's closing. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

In 1963, the segregated, all-black Rosenwald-Dunbar School in Nicholasville closed.

Public schools in Jessamine County were integrating, and the black students were being transferred to formerly all-white schools in the district in the name of progress.

Ten students were members of the last class to graduate from Rosenwald-Dunbar, and now, on the 50th anniversary of the school's closing, the former students want us to know they were blessed to be a part of the school's rich history.

"There was a nurturing spirit," said Hallie B. Miller, 68, one of the last graduates. "My mother had to work so the teacher was the surrogate mother. That is how I think of it."

Originally called the Nicholasville Colored School, and later named Dunbar School in honor of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, Rosenwald-Dunbar became one of 158 schools built for blacks in Kentucky between 1917 and 1932 that were partially funded by Julius Rosenwald, then the CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Although churches and families had been building schools for their children prior to the establishment of the Rosenwald Fund, Rosenwald, with help from Booker T. Washington, took building schools for blacks to a higher level.

At Rosenwald's death in 1932, nearly 5,000 schools had been built in 883 counties in 15 Southern states. The fund also built 163 vocational buildings and 217 homes for teachers. Most of those buildings no longer exist and many are in disrepair.

Black communities had to initiate the request and, with the general public, help fund the construction monetarily or by donating labor, materials and land.

Rosenwald-Dunbar received funding for two classrooms and an auditorium from the Rosenwald Fund, enabling the school to become a four-year high school in 1931.

Before the addition, Jessamine County black students had to travel to Dunbar High School in Lexington to finish grades 11 and 12.

New buildings were added in 1946 and 1956 to increase the number of classrooms at the high school level and for a gymnasium, lunchroom and more classrooms.

Nicholasville was fortunate in that the three buildings encompassing the segregated school for blacks still exist and have been renovated. In many communities that is not true, particularly of the Rosenwald schools.

But Rosenwald-Dunbar was more than buildings to students who had no other means to an education.

"I lived in the country and it was an opportunity to socialize with other kids," said Miller, who lived in Keene. She and other Jessamine County black students were all bused to Rosenwald-Dunbar in 1955, she said, to attend first through 12th grades when the segregated schools in the county were consolidated.

Neither Miller nor Edward Prentice, who lived in Nicholasville, noticed that they didn't go to school with their white neighbors.

"I remember having a good time," said Prentice, 68, one of the last graduates and an admitted goof-off in school. "I credit my parents and the community for protecting us. We didn't know it at the time, but that is what they did."

Although he had to take remedial courses when he later attended Kentucky State University, he doesn't blame his teachers.

"There were four boys in that class," he said. "When I got out of school, I played."

His friend, however, went home to study and then came back to play. "He would come to school the next day and he could correct the teachers," Prentice recalled laughing. "So, I don't blame the school."

One of their teachers, Gentry LaRue, who had a long career in Fayette County Public Schools before retiring in 1999, said he taught several subjects including French, math and science for three years at Rosenwald-Dunbar, starting in 1959.

"The people were a bit more humble and easier to discipline," he said. "In fact, you didn't have to worry about discipline.

"Parents placed a high priority on education and instilled that in their children," he said.

The textbooks were handed down from white schools, he said, and Miller recalls that parents had to pay for them.

"It was an uphill battle for blacks to get a top-notch education," LaRue said. "But for those who really wanted to involve themselves, they did all right."

And, he said, Prentice turned out fine, too. They both serve on the board of the Community Action Council.

"I respect him and have learned to depend on him," he said.

The same is true of his classmates, Prentice said. Many made names for themselves, including Miller who in 1973 became the first black police officer in Jessamine County and worked in Wilmore.

"I see how they handle themselves now and I see the skills they have now," he said. "I know they have bettered themselves. We learned some of that from the school."

The former students and teachers want to celebrate that.

There will be a reunion of all Rosenwald-Dunbar students on July 26 and 27 in Lexington, as well as a picnic along with the unveiling of a historical marker near the school grounds on July 28.

This is the fourth reunion and it may be the last, Prentice said.

But the former students plan to do what they can to keep the memories alive.

If you go

50th anniversary of the last graduating class of the Rosenwald-Dunbar School in Nicholasville.

What: 8 p.m.- midnight, July 26, meet and greet. On July 27: 11 a.m.-1 p.m., luncheon and program; 6- 8 p.m. dinner and program; 8 p.m. - midnight, dance. Ramada Inn & Conference Center, 2143 North Broadway, Lexington. Tickets: $85 for all events. Picnic and historical marker dedication near the school at 600 East Maple St., Nicholasville. 2-5 p.m., July 28. Open to the public.

For information: Call (859) 272-1954; (859) 887-2547; and (859) 266-9647.

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