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Historic Chestnut Grove School

by Marie Hodgson Koenig

The roof was falling in. Kudzu almost hid the little frame building from view. Floor boards had rotted out. But today historic Chestnut Grove School stands restored, another successful preservation effort.

Built in 1896, it is the only surviving restored example of a one- room schoolhouse for black children in Clarke County, and one of the few such schools remaining in Georgia. It is nestled in a grove of ancient trees at 601 Epps Bridge Road between Chestnut Grove Baptist Church and a small cemetery that contains the graves of a man and woman born during the time of slavery.

A hipped roof with a decorative composition shingle pattern covers the structure. Fortunately   the building was not disturbed during the widening of the intersection of Timothy Road and  Epps  Bridge Road in 1998 and 1999.

Roberta Barnett, whose husband’s family attended Chestnut Grove School for four generations, says that James K. Reap, historic planner with the Northeast Georgia Area Planning and Development Commission, “worked with our little group to save the school so that it could be used for educational, religious and social gatherings.”

Mrs. Barnett and her husband Luke were chairmen of a biracial steering committee working to restore the building. A 1983 Athens Banner Herald newspaper article listed the members of the committee at that time as Phyllis Barrow, Robert W. Chambers, Eva Howard, Barbara Dooley, Walter R. Allen, Genelle Morain, Bradford Brown, and Howard Stroud.

Although efforts to preserve the school began in the 1970s, they really gathered momentum in the 1980s. The schoolhouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 28, 1984.

Chestnut Grove School grew from the combined efforts of the Clarke County Board of Education and rural blacks. In 1896 Floyd Kenney, a local black farmer, sold the property to the Board of Education, which pledged it for “the use of the colored people of the vicinity.”1

The county government matched a $100 donation from local sharecroppers for a school building to be controlled and managed by the county Board of Education. While the Board of Education provided some of the funds, the local black community contributed materials, labor and teachers for the education of its children.

Conditions were primitive. The building lacked interior lighting, except sunlight from the windows, and indoor plumbing. Heat came from a wood stove. Part of the interior wall was painted black to serve as a chalk board.  From a survey done in 1912, Chestnut Grove School was one of only 14 schools for black children in rural Clarke County. Only two of those 14 schools had more than one room. The building was listed as being in fair condition; one of only six that was painted on the outside.2 At that time, there were no desks in the school or a cloak room. It did have a playground, in good condition, but no garden. Often only one teacher instructed pupils from the first through the seventh grades. The school closed at the end of the 1949-1950 school year.

In 1956 the Clarke County Board of Education sold the property to the adjacent Chestnut Grove Baptist Church for $505.3 Members of the congregation and former students have believed the little schoolhouse should be preserved because of its contributions to African-American history and to education in Athens-Clarke County.

Former  students  have  gone  on  to  become  bankers,  teachers, government  officials,  and  businessmen  and  women.  Many have returned during the years to help in the restoration.

Louis H. Barnett, son of Roberta and Luke, attended classes from 1943 until 1949 then went to Union Baptist Institute in Athens. He holds degrees from Morehouse College and the University of California at Los Angeles, and is presently the chairman of the board of Executive Security and Engineering, Inc., headquartered in Washington, D.C.

He has returned to Athens four times over the past few years to work at the school and has joined his father Luke in sawing wood for the floors. The millwork for the floor boards was done in Greensboro, Georgia, and the last board was laid in the spring of 1999.

Tyrone Barnett, Louis’s brother, reminisces: “Perhaps because we were all in a small one- room building, the school had a warm, close, family environment. Older children would bring in wood during the winter to keep the stove running. We learned not only from the instructor, but from the example of the older students – manners, ethics and responsibility.”4

Local artists Dwain E. Sanders and Joyce Muckle have restored pictures of birds that had been drawn on the old chalk board. “My daughter Cordelia and her friend Hattie Long put those birds there 40 years ago,”    Mrs. Barnett commented.

Annie Bell Mathews, a member of the Chestnut Grove Baptist Church, has filled the school with materials and photographs representing black history in Athens, Georgia, and the nation. “It is a story that has got to be told,” she insisted, as she prepared for the restored school’s dedication day, scheduled to be held in October 1999.

Notes

1. Athens-Clarke  County  Historic  Preservation  Commission  Report  on Proposed Designation of Chestnut Grove School, 1984.

2. Michael L. Thurmond. “Educators & Their Schools: Quenching the Thirst for Knowledge” from A Story Untold: Black Men and Women in Athens History, 1978, p. 79.

3. op. cit.

4. Julie Morgan and Karin Zipf, “Athens’ African-American Heritage.” Athens Magazine, vol. 8 (1996), No. 2, pp. 89-95.

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