Toward the back of the Beulah Rucker Museum and Education Center, peeking through the forest, are ruins of two buildings once buzzing with energetic children and hopeful veterans.
Charred, with only remnants of walls standing, is the old Industrial School’s gymnasium. That lies next to the former veterans’ night school, overgrown with trees and vines.
Beulah Rucker, who was raised on a farm by sharecropper parents, opened an Industrial School in Gainesville in the early 1900s to serve African Americans during a time when many Black students weren’t accepted into educational institutions. The site later expanded to have a boys and girls dormitory, cannery, workshop, veterans’ night school and gymnasium. Still on the site are Beulah’s home, the school building and an educational center.
When George Rucker, one of Beulah Rucker’s four remaining grandchildren, walks around the property today, he can see past the decaying foundations of the gym and night school. He fondly remembers the property and hopes it will one day return to glory.
"On weekends, kids would go in there and play basketball,” George said while pointing toward a crumbling wall of the gym built in the 1950s. “They’d always want to come down here and go to the gym.”
Each brick that held the gym up was made by students at both the Industrial School and veterans’ night school.
George said his grandmother wasn’t one to give something for free. She offered the boys who couldn’t afford to attend the Industrial School jobs making bricks, and the girls helped pay their tuition by working on the loom.
“She believed you had to work for everything,” George recounted. “I’d ask for a drink out of a Coke machine, and it wasn’t but a nickel. I’d say, ‘Grandmother, can I have a drink? She’d say, ‘Yeah, go out there and mow over there and you could get it.’”
On average, George said around 10 girls and 10 boys would stay in the property’s barracks at the Industrial School. Most of them were children from out of town, so they needed to live close in order to attend school.
On Saturday nights, he said his grandmother would host a social at the gym for those students.
“It cost 10 cents to get in,” George said. “We would have cake walks, and she’d do bobbing for apples. At 10 p.m. she’d blink the lights twice, and that’s when you were supposed to go.”
George said his grandmother poured her retirement money into the gym.
Even after the Industrial School closed in 1957, he said children and adults continued to use it. To help keep the building standing, Beulah would rent out the gym to wrestling teams.
“The professional wrestlers would come from Atlanta, and they would always come in on Saturdays to wrestle,” he said. “They had a wrestling ring in there like they do on TV.”
The gym reached an end in the early ’70s after catching on fire. George said his dad, Curtis Rucker, was burning garden waste when the “fire got away from him.” Unfortunately, he said the closest fire department was called, but they didn't come to the rescue.
“The fire department wouldn’t put it out,” he said. “At the time, they didn’t do a lot of things for black people.”
The school building was restored in the mid-’90s and transformed into the Beulah Rucker Museum. Soon afterward, the educational center was erected next door.
George, who is 73, said he dreams of resurrecting the gym and filling the property with children, like his grandmother always wanted.
Through the leadership of the Educational Foundation and Museum of Beulah Rucker’s board, he said the construction project could begin soon.
The board is also looking to add a parking lot and new landscaping to the property.
“Our whole goal is to have this for kids,” George said. “Black, white, blue or gray, it doesn’t matter.”
For those who want to donate to the property’s upkeep and future additions like a new gym and parking lot, visit beulahruckermuseum.org and click on the donate tab.