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A legacy of learning: Beulah Rucker

Family, community join forces to preserve Rucker's school

POSTED: December 20, 2009 12:30 a.m.
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Beulah Rucker

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This is part of an occasional series called "Preservation and Progress" dedicated to the historic side of Hall County.

Greatness sometimes comes from humble beginnings.

From some scrap wood, hard labor and a dream arose a school for black children that now is preserved as a museum and education center.

The force behind the school was Beulah Rucker, a resourceful woman with a passion for learning that believed everyone had the right to an education, as long as they were willing to work hard for it.

Her descendents, community leaders and other supporters have worked hard to preserve the property and continue her legacy of education, but they concede there is still much left to do.

Unlike many other sites on the National Registry of Historic Places, there is no statesman, no general associated with the property.

Beulah Rucker was never rich or famous, but is remembered for the lifetime she dedicated to providing children with a chance to learn.

Born in rural Banks County in 1888 to illiterate sharecroppers, Rucker learned to work hard early in life.

"Both of my parents were hard-working people and reared us to work accordingly. Early rising and late working seemed to have been the motto of our family," Rucker wrote in her short memoir, "The Rugged Pathway."

Rucker was always hungry for knowledge and taught herself the alphabet by looking at the newsprint that was plastered on the walls of her log house for insulation.

Rucker finished primary school in Banks County, but the nearest black high school at the time was in Athens.

Her family couldn't afford the cost of room and board, so Rucker worked milking cows and cleaning the home of the principal in the mornings before school started.

Some terms, her parents could not even afford the tuition at the school, but Rucker returned anyway, determined to continue her education.

"When it came time to pay the principal, I was lost for words," Rucker wrote in her memoir. "I said to him with a gesture, here are these hands, they can work."

After graduation in 1909, Rucker started on a mission to build a school where disadvantaged students like her could get an education. After searching long and hard for land to build on, Rucker established the Industrial School off of Athens Highway.

"The school existed for those who helped themselves," said Rojene Bailey, Rucker's grandson and the executive director of the Beulah Rucker Museum. "You had to work to earn your keep."

Architect Garland Reynolds, who restored the school building, said Rucker didn't have much money but got a lot of support from people in town, even outside of the black community.

"A number of local citizens helped her out by they helped her on the sly," Reynolds said. "Segregation was pervasive at the time."

Rucker also did much of the labor herself and got help from students to build the school. Many of the building materials were salvaged, including lumber from Confederate General James E. Longstreet's Piedmont Hotel, which was torn down in 1918.

The school got a financial boost after catching the attention of the Rosenwald Foundation, said Reynolds.

In the early part of the 20th century, Sears, Roebuck and Co. President Julius Rosenwald donated a lot of money to help build schools in mostly poor, rural black communities, including Rucker's.

The Industrial School continued teaching students until it closed in 1957, according to Times Archives.

Restoration of school

Rucker's daughters, Dorothy Rucker and Carrie Bailey, wanted to preserve their mother's legacy by restoring the school property in the 1990s.

They formed a non-profit board and began on their mission, but work halted for a number of years.

"After the (1996) Olympics things kind of went awry," Bailey said. "My mom got ill and died, my aunt got ill and died."

In 2005, Bailey decided to take over and the project once again moved forward.

"We got a new board, a new 501(c)3 certification and started from scratch," Bailey said.

This time around, Bailey decided, the group would raise money to help fund the education of area students, something he feels his grandmother would have wanted.

"One of the things that caught us was the high dropout rate," Bailey said of local schools at the time.

Now, much of the money the Beulah Rucker Museum and Educational Foundation raises goes toward providing scholarships to dedicated students.

"If you want to do it, we will help you achieve your goals," Bailey said. "But you've got to be serious about it and convince us of that."

Moving forward

Bailey concedes there is still much more he would like to see accomplished in the future.

The museum is more sparsely filled than he would like and it is operated on a volunteer basis.

Like his grandmother, Bailey will be patient and work with what resources are available.

"We don't have the money but we have the ideas," Bailey said.

Bailey thinks programs like the organization's back to school rallies and scholarships set the Beulah Rucker property apart by making it more than just a relic.

"We want to preserve history but we want to look into the future."

Gainesville Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner, who serves as president of the board for the Beulah Rucker Foundation, said she would like to see the museum become a more interactive experience.

"I think it's a one of a kind place for this area of the state," Bruner said. "It's one of the only surviving early African American industrial schools."

Bruner's hope is to recover items that were used in the school to provide an exhibit of what it was like in school a century ago.

"The board's been doing more in terms of scholarships, but not so much on the historical restoration of that site," Bruner said. "I would like to see it go in that direction in the future."

Gainesville Mayor Myrtle Figueras, also a member of the Beulah Rucker Foundation Board, said she thinks historical preservation is an asset to not only the city but to the entire region.

"If we know where we've been we can learn more about what's going to happen today and in the future," Figueras said.




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