Navigating Nature

Published 4:43 pm Tuesday, November 7, 2023

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(Editor’s Note: This story is the third in a series about the Roanoke River being named the 12th State Trail in North Carolina and what that means for the river, the counties the river connects, and the people who care about preserving and experiencing wild, untamed places.)


Special to RC Publications

A 100-year-old school rests near the banks of the Roanoke River in Hamilton, a silent memorial to the thousands of African American children it served in its prime.

Abandoned in 1960 when the bigger, integrated, Edna Andrews Elementary was built, the older school served as a warehouse for a local mercantile until its historic significance was unearthed, years later, hidden beneath its decaying façade.

An original Rosenwald School, it is one of about 5,000 schools built in the southern United States, between 1910 and 1932, to serve rural black children during segregation. Over 800 were built in North Carolina, more than any other state.

The schools were created as the result of a partnership between Jewish businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., and African American educator, leader and former slave, Booker T. Washington – to improve the lack of quality education available to black communities during that time.

According to Preserving Rosenwald Schools by Mary S. Hoffschwelle for the NTHP, the Rosenwald school in Hamilton, “cost $4,500 when it was built in 1920: $3,000 came from the public school district, $1,000 from the Rosenwald Fund and $500 came from the local African American community.”

Few of these historic schools are left – only 10-12 percent of the original structures are still standing, according to Smithsonian Magazine. This makes the school, formerly known as the Hamilton Colored School, a rare, regional gem.

Nearly forgotten, the building is now set to play a starring role in the newly authorized Roanoke River State Trail as a museum and river center.

In 2007, Roanoke River Partners, Inc. (RRP, Inc.) a nonprofit, economic development organization (formed in 1996) recognized the implications of this historic relic and raised the money to purchase the Hamilton school with help from the Conservation Fund, the Mid-EAST Resource Conservation and Development Council, along with private donors.

Once purchased, they promptly set about obtaining grants and other monies to preserve this homegrown treasure.

They obtained major grants from the Marion Stedman Covington Foundation, Lowe’s Charitable and Educational Foundation, in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Conservation Fund’s Creating New Economies Fund. (CNEF). With these grants they put a new roof on the facility and enclosed the building from outside elements.

Since acquiring the school, RRP, Inc. has continued to seek national, state and local grants to restore the school as closely as possible to its original Rosenwald roots.

In 2021, RRP, Inc., was authorized as the official partner organization of the Roanoke River State Trail – a 140-mile paddle trail extending from Weldon to the Albemarle Sound, which flows nearby the 100-year-old school.

Plans are for the site to serve as a river center for the Roanoke River State Trail as The Hamilton Rosenwald River Center and as an interpretive site to tell the Rosenwald story. It will also be a gathering place for community and be a permanent home for RRP, Inc. according to Financial and Trail Coordinator Anne Lunsford.

“This historic renovation is a cornerstone in the fulfillment of our mission, which is to preserve, enhance and promote the natural, cultural and historic identity and integrity of the Roanoke River Region through natural and cultural resource-based tourism and other environmentally sustainable economic activities – designed to build cultural infrastructure, spur creative enterprise and encourage economic growth,” she said.

Lunsford continued, “It will function as a depository for Roanoke River history and riverine science exhibits, Roanoke River Underground Railroad history and artifacts exhibits – which feature the river as a part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom – in an authentic Rosenwald School setting with associated historic artifacts, printed materials and oral histories,” much of which was collected by former RRP Director Carol Shields.

The facility will be an economic stimulus for the Town of Hamilton, as well as the entire Roanoke River Region.

The center will also serve as a local community center and a facility for regional events and activities.

“Our vision for this critical piece of cultural infrastructure is for it to be a place where locals and visitors learn more about North Carolina’s ‘Amazon’ – its storied history, its vast natural resources, and its continuing scientific and economic impact,” Lunsford continued.

The site will be linked to a host of compatible statewide and regional initiatives including: the N.C. Birding Trail, the Civil War Trail, the Roanoke River UGRR Trail, regional African-American Heritage sites, N.C. Freedom Roads and National Underground Network to Freedom projects, the Quilt Trails of the Tar and Roanoke Rivers and two major biking trails.

Renovations to bring the school to this pinnacle are currently estimated at $1.2 million.

RRP, Inc. recently received a Cannon Foundation grant and, through the efforts of RRP Past President Charlotte Griffin, a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources/N.C. Dept. of Commerce.

RRP, Inc. will continue to apply for other grants as they become available.

In the past, RRP, Inc. has also received grants for this project from the National Trust Fund for Historic Preservation, The Francis M. Barnes Trust, the town of Hamilton, Martin County Historical Society and Arts Council, East Carolina University for Sustainable Tourism, the Roanoke Rivers Mayors Association, as well as significant private donations.

Additional partners include representatives from other Rosenwald school projects, alumni of the school and a multitude of volunteers.

Restoration to the school is contingent on a historical and environmental review, with renovations to begin in late fall.

As a non-profit, RRP, Inc. is supported by members in the six counties that make up the Roanoke River region, and members throughout the United States. They operate on private donations, grants, and support from regional towns and counties.

Over the years, one of the crowning achievements of RRP, Inc. has been creating a system of raised camping platforms along the Roanoke for outdoor enthusiasts to spend a night or several, on the water – as they explore the untamed region by canoe or kayak. Go to for more information.

Deborah Griffin is a freelance writer and can be reached at