In the early 1920s, the people of Ouachita County knew that Julius Rosenwald would help them if and only if they showed initiative in the community.
Rosenwald was a Jewish philanthropist from Illinois who wanted to make a difference for a group that likely wouldn’t receive help from anyone else. With the creation of the Rosenwald Fund, he would help fund the education of African American children all across the rural South. At one point there were more than 5,000 Rosenwald Schools serving African Americans in the rural United States. Today, at least 58 of the remaining schools are listed in the U.S. National Register for Historic Places.
Between the public and the impoverished African-American community, $11,300 in public funds were raised. Pleased with this success, during the 1927-1928 budget year, the Rosenwald Foundation gave a grant of $1,200 to the city of Camden.
The Lafayette School’s construction could now begin.
The Rosenwald Fund continued to help build schools in rural African-American communities across the South, where black schools and white schools were separate, but definitely not equal. Rosenwald decided that the key to his philanthropic work was to be alive while his charity was helping do good deeds, so that he would be able to witness hard work come to fruition.
But the key to receiving a Rosenwald Grant was a demonstration of hard work and determination on behalf of the community, so that the donation would not go to waste.
In this case, once the city of Camden demonstrated a genuine desire to raise the funds for the building of an all African-American school, and after receiving a Rosenwald grant for the project, the Lafayette School was constructed from blueprints given by the Rosenwald Foundation. The Lafayette School, by 1947, offered grades 1-12. The campus expanded alongside extracurricular activities offered to the students. During the 1954-1955 academic year, a gymnasium was constructed. The Lafayette School and its various activities gave African-American children a better chance at education than previously imagined.
“The good thing was their nurturing, love of teaching, and the desire for each child to learn and excel,” said Flossie Moore, a graduate of Lafayette High School’s class of 1955.
However, the Lafayette School closed its doors between the 1968 and 1969 school years during desegregation, integrating with Fairview School.
Now, all that remains on the once-abundant school grounds is the gymnasium.
But for Lafayette School Restoration, Inc, this gymnasium is the seed to a new beginning.
The group, founded by and composed of alumni from the Lafayette School, has been working to restore and convert the old gym into a community center after buying the property in 2013. The gym is roughly 7,200 square feet and is situated on two acres of land.
Moore now works hard in her position as vice president of Lafayette School Restoration, Inc to restore the place that once played a pivotal role in her youth. “When my mother called me in 1969 and told me the school was going to close, that was the day that I decided no, we’re going to do something about this.,” she said.
Her goal is also shared with other alumni, who are doing their part to restore the building by getting quotes, writing grants, and spreading the word.
“After the schools integrated in 1969, they didn’t try to save any memorabilia from the Lafayette School,” Dr. Earl Anderson, president of Lafayette School Restoration, Inc., said “They didn’t keep the records. They threw them in the dumpster, or buried them.”
When discussing the topic of integration, a tone of frustration entered Anderson’s voice. “I don’t know why there was so much animosity and desire to get things from black schools. We had notable alumni, such as cancer doctors, neurosurgeons. Since we integrated, we haven’t turned out as many people from the black community like that,” he said.
“Integration did not benefit blacks,” he said. “People who have never gone through this can’t have any idea what I’m talking about. How are you gonna have a history with no blacks in it? What about that is American? But if we come together, we can accomplish anything. Nothing is beyond our purview or capability if we come together and work together.”
Anderson, along with Moore, said that since Lafayette was closed down, they fear that members of the black community do not have the same community to support them as before. The gymnasium-turned-community center would help to remedy that.
“We want the building so that we can improve the literacy rate in this area. We want the building so that we can do training in the schools. We want to teach things like welding and other jobs at that building. We want to do some tutoring and teaching, and most importantly, we want to establish a community,” he said.
According to Lafayette School Restoration, Inc’s website, their mission is to “preserve the cultural, educational, and economic growth, past and present within the community by providing a facility where all may participate, with opportunities for youth, adults, veterans and families in Camden, Arkansas and surrounding areas.”
Moore said that the community center wouldn’t just be a place for learning and classes, but could be used for weddings, receptions and church events.
Anderson establishes just how vital it is to have a community gathering place in a black community, with black origins that they have fought so hard to keep. For Anderson, current political and social affairs are a reminder of what he is fighting for.
“This community center will be pivotal in making up for unfair race relations throughout the decades, especially with the teaching that is going to be done. Before I could teach, I had to be taught,” he said.
So far, they have received several grants, including a grant from Awesome Without Borders. These grants allowed the group to install new windows, doors and a roof, along with creating garden beds and doing grounds maintenance throughout 2018 and 2019.
But there is still a long way to go.
According to Anderson and Moore, the cost of reconstruction, renovation and design is estimated at over $1 million.
Despite this, the two still remain undeterred.
“You have to persevere if you really want something,” Moore insisted.
“I know where I’m from, and I know who has protected me,” Anderson said. “I’m excited to share my experience with the people, so that they can take that seed for themselves.”