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Restoring the Rosenwald May's Lick School

During the era of segregation in the United States, black students in Mason County, Kentucky, received their education at the Rosenwald May’s Lick Negro School. The school itself closed after integration, but the building still stands and many former students have fond memories of their time there.

“Teachers that were here had loving hearts and kindness toward the students,” says Mary K. Branch. “We were all treated with respect. They were role models and surrogate parents. They wanted the best for us. They wanted to see black children progress. They wanted us to get what we needed to make it in this world.”

“It was never impressed upon me that I was going to a segregated school,” says Norman P. Franklin. “It was just, I’m coming to school. This is our school.”

Separate was not equal during segregation, and even as kids, the students were aware of that.

“We knew there were things we did not have,” says Mary Ruth French. “We knew the white school had central heat, running water, inside bathrooms. That’s just the way it was.”

“We never saw a new book. Didn’t know what it was,” remembers Omelia Franklin. “All the books were worn, tattered, pages torn. They were books that [the white schools] were casting off.”

Despite that inequality, the May’s Lick school gave its students a solid foundation thanks to the dedicated teachers.

“They did do an excellent job of educating us,” says Omelia Franklin. “When we integrated, we were on par with everyone else because of what our teachers did.”

In the early 20th century, Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and Julius Rosenwald, president of the Sears and Roebuck department store chain, created an initiative to build more than 4,000 schools for African American children in communities across the south.

In Kentucky alone, there were 158 Rosenwald schools, typically funded in part by Rosenwald along with contributions from the local community and the local black population. Now most of those school buildings are gone.

“When you compare it to the other Rosenwald schools that were built, hardly anybody put as much money into their school as our African American community did into this school,” says veterinarian Cheryl French. “This is something that really needs to be saved. It’s part of the community. It’s something that everybody should cherish.”

An effort is underway to restore and preserve the May’s Lick school building in recognition of its historic and community importance.

“Being a Rosenwald school helped us tremendously in getting this on the national register,” says Robert DeVoe, project coordinator for the school’s restoration. “We’ve had some contact with the Rosenwald people. They would really like to see this restored.”

The May’s Lick alumni who shared their memories agree that the school building is worth saving.

“It would be nice to see it be restored,” says Peggy Jackson. “This is our school; our alma mater.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life, season 25, episode 13, which originally aired on February 8, 2020. Watch the full episode.