Preserving the past for future needs

Published 4:38 pm Tuesday, September 5, 2023

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AHOSKIE – The late Robert L. Vann would be proud of the effort to transform the old school here named in his honor into something from which the entire Ahoskie community can benefit.

After all, Mr. Vann himself was a visionary.

On Saturday morning, a community meeting was held at New Ahoskie Baptist Church where ideas were shared about transformation of the historic buildings on the R.L. Vann campus, located on Holloman Avenue.

“We want your vision, let’s talk about this project. We’re not trying to score a touchdown here today, we’re just kicking off this project,” stressed Charlie Morris, a Deacon at New Ahoskie Baptist Church who emceed Saturday’s event.

Morris attended R.L. Vann until 1966 when he left to go to Ahoskie High School as part of integration.

“Those who attended R.L. Vann have impacted our community and all over the country and the world,” Morris said.

Ahoskie Councilman David Hunt gave remarks on behalf of the town.

“The town is in full support of the R.L. Vann project,” Hunt noted. “I’m glad to see all of you here today. We need your ideas; we want everyone to be involved and give your input on what you want this project to become.”

Charlie Morris, who attended R.L. Vann until 1966 when he left to go to Ahoskie High School as part of integration, was among those promoting the effort to transform the Vann campus into a community hub to serve various needs. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

“It takes all of us to rehab the R.L. Vann campus,” stated Mary Brown-Joyner. “We need you. We must support this project because in the end our children and our grandchildren can benefit from the direction we are undertaking. Please support us as this project will benefit the community, the town, and our county.”

Diane Saunders McNair, Chair of the R.L. Vann Resource Center, gave a history of Robert Lee Vann, born in 1879 in Ahoskie. After attending Virginia Union University, Vann graduated in 1909 with a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He founded the Pittsburgh Courier, using it as a tool for social progress and to address injustices faced by African Americans. He fought for better housing and education for Blacks. He used his newspaper to advance the Civil Rights cause. He passed away in 1940.

Barbara Sessoms, Director of the R.L. Vann Resource Center, traced the local history of education for Blacks in the Ahoskie area. She noted that prior to 1898, there was a school constructed on what is now the home of New Ahoskie Baptist Church to serve Black students. That school was moved in 1920 to its current location on Holloman Avenue.

In 1934, a three classroom building and an auditorium were added. The first class to graduate from the Ahoskie High School for the Colored came in 1939. Two years later (1941), the school was renamed to Robert Lee Vann Elementary and High School….simply later known as R.L. Vann.

R.L. Vann remained part of the Hertford County Public School District, serving elementary-age students, until 2000. The campus was also once used as a satellite location for Shaw University.

The R.L. Vann Reunion Committee paid for and took ownership of the fourth grade building on Dec. 6, 2000. With the help of county officials, that Committee took complete ownership of the entire campus earlier this year.

Jackie Newsome-Williams – whose mother, Doris Flood Newsome, taught for many years at R.L. Vann – shared what is needed to make this revitalization project a reality.

“We need you to support this vision, we need boots on the ground,” Newsome-Williams stressed. “Yes we need money, but boots on the ground are equally important. We need legal assistance, communications, marketing, management…whatever talent you have, we need you. We need your input and your ideas.”

Ahoskie native Dr. Kevin Lamar James, now living in Chicago where he works as the Director of the Indiana University – South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center, took part in Saturday’s event via Zoom.

“Your project there has helped me learn more about my family’s history in Ahoskie,” James said. “The legacy of R.L. Vann School is very rich among other families as well. Preserving that school helps tell the story of the Ahoskie community and the story of gaining Civil Rights there. It will help tell the story of those who came before us and fought for the rights and privileges we enjoy today. We need to remember that and to teach that so we don’t repeat history. Your project can happen with community support.”

James introduced his colleague, Dr. Alma Powell, who served as the keynote speaker at Saturday’s meeting.

Powell shared the story of a young mouse who had never seen the ocean, so he told his parents of his plans to take a trip to the seashore. The mother and father warned their little one of all the perils that awaited him on his journey.

“Even before the morning had ended, the mouse came to know trouble and fear,” Powell said. “A cat jumped out who wanted to eat the mouse for lunch. It was a narrow escape, but the mouse left a part of his tail in the cat’s mouth.

“By afternoon, the mouse had been attacked by a dog and was bruised and bloodied,” she continued. “He was tired and hungry. He finally climbed the last hill and saw the seashore for the first time. He watched the waves roll in. All the colors of the sunset filled the sky.

‘How beautiful this is, I wished mother and father were here with me to see this,’ the little mouse said, becoming overwhelmed with deep peace and contentment.

Powell’s story is linked to the fight and eventual victory by Blacks in South Bend in the 1950s to desegregate a public swimming pool, which had opened in 1922 and for which Blacks were helping to remain open through paying their taxes, but yet were prohibited from using.

The Golden Harmoneers of Mapleton performed several songs of inspiration as part of the community meeting held Saturday at New Ahoskie Baptist Church. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

“You have that same pride in Ahoskie. The revamping of your beloved school will help to share that pride and the rich history of R.L. Vann School,” Powell stressed. “Share your personal stories of the school and the story of Mr. Vann himself.”

But keeping in mind the story of the mouse’s harrowing trip to see the seashore, Powell warned of “cats waiting to jump out from behind trees.”

“You will get attacked for your efforts; you will become tired, but remained focused and move on,” she said. “Work to garner support of your town and your county. Get the community involved.

“As the mouse sat quietly on top of the hill, so did the community members of Ahoskie. They were all overwhelmed because they had saved R.L. Vann School. It was a moment of true happiness as they had reached their goal,” Powell concluded.

James closed out his presentation by encouraging the R.L. Vann group to carefully devise plans for reuse of the buildings in a cost effective way.

“Some of the aspects of your property may not be redeveloped for its former use or how it once looked. Portions may be turned into something that honors what that space use to be,” James suggested. “That allows you having the opportunity to make better decisions with the money you have available.”

He also encouraged the R.L. Vann group to think about addressing the local community needs…housing, job training, workforce development, service learning, economic support, life skills training, etc.

As Saturday’s two-hour meeting drew to a close, several in attendance offered their vision for the project, to include using a portion of the property for temporary housing to help those struggling to get back on their feet; present new opportunities to young people for them gain greater exposure by visiting other parts of the country to experience new things; and constructing a community gym on the property.

Also taking part in the meeting were the Golden Harmoneers of Mapleton who performed several songs of inspiration.

Part 2 of Saturday’s event was held at the R.L. Vann campus. There, attendees enjoyed complimentary hot dogs and hamburgers, toured the primary building and grounds, reminisced about days gone by, and engaged in fruitful discussions about the future of the property.

Those wishing to learn more about the project are encouraged to stop by the R.L. Vann Resource Center during normal business hours.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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