If ever there was a place for the legacy of Beulah Rucker Oliver, known by most as Beulah Rucker, to be honored and immortalized, it would be at a school.
And that’s just what will happen at Gainesville High School, after a namesake dedication at the $9 million advanced studies building being constructed on the campus received unanimous support from the Gainesville school board on Tuesday.
The bottom floor of the advanced studies building will be called “Rucker Hall,” in honor of the daughter of illiterate sharecropper parents turned educator.
Gainesville schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams told The Times after the meeting that Rucker was not only responsible for educating the community, even in a time that restricted African Americans from education, but she was also responsible for developing a workforce. He said evidence of her accomplishments lives on today.
“At a time when there was a need, someone like Ms. Rucker saw that need and wanted to ensure that there was a labor force, wanted to ensure that people were cared for, and, most importantly, wanted to ensure that there were future generations that could benefit from whatever success that they could have here,” Williams said, referring to Rucker as a “pioneer and a trailblazer.”
“Now, many, many years later, we are able to take some of the accomplishments that she had years ago and really introduce them to a whole new generation.”
Williams also pointed out that it is fitting the dedication came on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and just before Black History Month in February.
Rucker, born on a Banks County farm in 1888, knew from the first day of school at age 5 that she wanted to be a teacher, according to the Beulah Rucker Museum & Education Center in Gainesville.
She graduated with honors from the Knox Institute in Athens in 1909 and earned her room and board by milking cows and cleaning the principal’s home, the museum’s website says. She then set on a mission to build a school for African Americans during a time when many educational institutions didn’t accept Black students.
After years of searching for a perfect location and building a group of supporters in the early 1900s, she found land in Gainesville to start the Industrial School off Athens Highway, where her namesake museum sits today.
The site grew to have a girls and boys dormitory, cannery, workshop, gymnasium, chicken house and classroom building. The institute provided basic high school education to myriad young people and veterans.
Rucker earned a college degree from Savannah State College in 1944 at the age of 56, then went on in 1951 to establish the first veterans’ night school in Georgia for African Americans to help soldiers obtain their GEDs.
Charlene Williams, volunteer executive director of the Beulah Rucker Museum, said recognition of her accomplishments and contributions as a local educator are “long overdue.”
“I do feel that this is … a well-deserved honor for everything that she did for the community and her role as a phenomenal educator in our community,” she said, adding that Rucker taught herself the alphabet by reading newspapers that plastered the walls of her home to keep the cold air out.
Charlene Williams said Superintendent Jeremy Williams approached her with the idea to dedicate the advanced studies building’s lower floor to Rucker, a move that she says shows the superintendent’s efforts to always reach out to “all communities” to ensure they’re included.
Charlene Williams said she and the superintendent spoke with the school board and it was decided.
“Not many people really know of her contributions, and we’re hoping that this will bring more awareness of everything that she did in our community,” Charlene Williams said. “She was just an all-around phenomenal lady.”
The Rev. Rose Johnson, executive director of the local civil rights organization Newtown Florist Club, said the dedication is important to ensure local students know those who “paved the way before them.”
“If we can experience the generational moments of having all of the … students who come through Gainesville High ask the question, ‘Who is Ms. Beulah Rucker?’ then her legacy will live on and on and on in this community,” Johnson said. “And I think that is the most befitting honor for her.”
Charlene Williams said she also hopes the halls of Rucker Hall will feature photos and artifacts illustrating Rucker’s contributions. The museum, she said, is seeking anyone with photos of the original buildings on Rucker’s campus.
Jeremy Williams confirmed that the school district will also be working to incorporate any available photos or artifacts telling Rucker’s story into the school building’s bottom floor dedicated in her name.
The 43,100-square-foot advanced studies building is one of many construction projects happening at the school, and will house the school’s career, technical and agricultural education programs, as well as some advanced placement courses. The building is expected to open in time for the start of the next school year.
Charlene Williams said she hopes the Gainesville school district’s dedication leads to further recognition in the community. The museum’s “ultimate goal,” she said, is to one day have every building on Rucker’s school campus rebuilt “just like she had it.”