By Kim Mailes:
Restoration of the 1872 Neosho Colored School attended by George Washington Carver is far from complete, but we have reached a milestone. The building has a new, solid foundation, and a period-correct roof will be installed soon. The Carver Birthplace Association has a renewed sense of optimism about this giant project we have undertaken: We can do this!
But, looking back, we realize HistoriCorps kick-started the whole thing.
George Washington Carver was born a slave during the Civil War on a small farm in Southwest Missouri and was an exceptionally bright child. Following Emancipation, he heard of “colored” school eight miles away in Neosho, and moved there, alone, at the age of ten, hungry for education. That first step led to a four-decade career as a university professor, and to worldwide fame as a scientist and inventor. In 2004, through a fortuitous series of events, the Carver Birthplace Association acquired the 1872 Neosho Colored School and determined to preserve this treasure.
But where to begin?
I got involved with HistoriCorps in 2015 and volunteering on two projects, immediately grasping the importance of “The Workforce for Saving Places.” Returning to Neosho, my hometown, I contacted the Carver Birthplace Association: “I’ve found the organization you need to get this project underway.”
During a three-week HistoriCorps project in 2016, 36 volunteers from ten states converged and “unwrapped” the treasure. I use that term because after 1891 the schoolhouse had served as a cheap rental house, added onto again and again in a haphazard patchwork of bad craftsmanship. Under the supervision of Project Supervisor John Bales and Crew Leader Charlotte Helmer, those layers were removed, exposing for the first time in over one hundred years the schoolhouse young George Washington Carver first saw in 1876. As an old man Carver drew a sketch of his first school from memory, and when crewmembers compared that sketch to the building we had unwrapped, we felt a profound sense of pride: the first steps had been taken to preserve a tangible example of Reconstruction era African American education, and the place where a famous person got his first taste of being a free man.
After acquiring the 1872 Neosho Colored School in 2004, several attempts were made to have the schoolhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places: each attempt failed. But following the HistoriCorps project recognition was immediately approved. Since 2015 I have become even more deeply involved with both HistoriCorps and the Carver Birthplace Association, and today I serve on the board of each organization. But I remain hands-on, volunteering on HistoriCorps projects and supervising the restoration of the 1872 Neosho Colored School. Saving historic places satisfies me, and HistoriCorps provides the vehicle for me to “do right by history.”
As the Carver Birthplace Association reflects with pride on what we’ve accomplished, we think fondly of HistoriCorps. That initial project in 2016 got us off dead center and sent us on our way. The enthusiasm of the volunteers, and the way HistoriCorps accomplished so much so efficiently, let us know that regular people—people just like us—can preserve history. It’s remarkable what can be accomplished when regular folks cultivate an awareness of what needs done and set about doing it.