By Faye Gaston
Essie Thomas of Midway spoke at the Bullock County Commission meeting on November 8, 2021, about the historical value of the Old Rosenwald Merritt School building in Midway. It is listed on the State and National Registers of Landmarks and Heritage.
The maintenance on the building is constant and she requested current needed funds from the Bullock County Commission. She feels that the Old Merritt school building should be considered part of the "Merritt Complex," with the newer brick school building no longer in use.
It is of historical importance because of its role in the history of education for African-American students and as an example of the architecture of early rural school buildings.
Essie Thomas is on the board of directors for the school and is responsible for obtaining thousands of dollars in grant money for the building's repairs, improvements, and maintenance. She keeps the board of directors functioning.
She said tourists visit the building, and the community has always used it even after the school's closing. There are photos and notations of its history on its walls.
The Rosenwald rural school building program began in Alabama as a collaboration between a nationally renowned educator (Booker T. Washington) and a prominent businessman (Julius Rosenwald) to build these small rural schools for African-American children in the segregated South.
The concept began with Washington and the staff at Tuskegee Institute's Extension Department. Julius Rosenwald, a Jew and CEO of Sears and Roebuck helped finance the construction of more than 5,000 school buildings in 883 counties in 15 Southern states between 1912 and 1932.
Nearly 400 were built in Alabama. Blacks often held classes in rented homes, churches, lodge halls, or abandoned shacks and houses. Until 1910, the school term for blacks in Alabama was less than five months. In 1911, Washington and Rosenwald met, and Rosenwald was added to Tuskegee's Board of Trustees.
Old Merritt Rosenwald School in Midway was one of those schools that Rosenwald helped to build, combined with funds from the community. Elizabeth Merritt (caucasian) donated the land for the school, and the school was named for her. When the school closed, it became the Senior Citizens Nutrition Center and a Community Center. Alumni of the school hold reunions.
Only a few of the Rosenwald School buildings are still standing, and Old Merritt in Midway is one of these. A movement began to demolish the Old Merritt School building. Letha Foster of Midway became the leader in saving this historic building.
At a Chamber of Commerce meeting years ago, Nanny Rhodes, Extension Agent, advised Letha Foster to meet me (Faye Gaston) as a Bullock County Historical Society member that could help save Old Merritt School. As a result, I became a member of the board of directors and the liaison between the board and the historical society. The Historical Society had the building placed on the State and National Registers of Landmarks and Heritage, paid for a new roof, and applied and paid for a historical marker in front of the building. I became an advocate for the building in writing articles and speaking.
Letha Foster constantly worked to help obtain funds for the preservation of Old Merritt School until her death.
For example, a donation from Senator Billy Beasley's discretionary funds of $6,000, and she got free primer and paint for the exterior of the building.
Essie Thomas uses her skills as a retired educator and alumni of Old Merritt School to preserve this historical treasure.