MARS HILL — Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School is one of the area’s richest historic assets, and a local organization aimed at preserving the school celebrated its rehabilitation last month.
The only such school still standing in western North Carolina, the one-classroom building on Mount Olive Drive was built in 1929. Rosenwald Schools, named for a wealthy sales executive retail that supported the effort, were built in the early 20th century to serve black students across the country when segregation-era laws prevented them from attending public schools then restricted to white students only.
Friends of Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School formed in 2009 and created a planning committee to save the building.
Last month, members of the community, former students of Rosenwald School and members of the organization celebrated rehabilitation with a discussion at Mars Hill University’s Broyhill Chapel, and gathered for a frying fish at the pavilion outside the chapel after a school visit.
Mars Hill resident and Friends committee chair Willa Wyatt said the organization has raised more than $246,000, including a $100,000 grant from the Hometown Strong program of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. , which aims to reduce the digital divide in rural communities.
“We took $15,000 and got high-speed internet from French Broad EMC,” Wyatt said. “That was the number one thing was to have internet here. Then we bought an interactive touch screen smart board. We also have a laptop lab with 30 laptops so we can deploy them so that students can come here.”
On May 31, 2018, Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As such, the Friends team have been tasked with preserving the original integrity of the nearly 100-year-old building to the best of their abilities. Dan Slagle served as the group’s de facto historical researcher, according to Wyatt.
The school’s windows are “historically designed and approved double-glazed windows,” Wyatt said. “They look like the single panes of old, and they’re single panes. It’s two sets of these leaned against each other to make double panes.”
The school now has three rooms: the instruction room, the museum room and the historical classroom. Friends deeded the building to Madison County Schools, which will hold academic programs in the building. The local school board holds an annual meeting in the building.
According to Wyatt, the organization has also asked the NCDNCR to consider receiving a civil rights marker.
Thoughts from a former student
Sarah Roland Weston Hart grew up in the Long Ridge neighborhood of Mars Hill, a historically black community where Anderson Rosenwald School is located. Roland Weston Hart attended the school in the 1940s.
“It was a trip that I loved,” said Roland Weston Hart. “I’m so happy to tell everyone that I went to Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School. Like I said, when I went it was either ‘Mars Hill Colored’ School or ‘(Mars Hill) Negro’. We didn’t mind that.”
After graduating from MHARS, Roland Weston Hart attended Stevens-Lee High School in Asheville.
“There were buses coming from Marshall, Hot Springs, Burnsville, Black Mountain, Swannanoa,” Roland Weston Hart said. “We called Stevens-Lee ‘Castle on the Hill.’ All these kids were standing on the tracks there, and (we were getting off) the little buses, and they were like, ‘Here come the country thugs.'”
In 1975, Roland Weston Hart became the first Black Madison County resident to graduate from Mars Hill College, earning a degree in elementary education. She earned her master’s degree in education from George Mason University and was a teacher for 32 years, including in the Asheville City School System from 1975 to 1984. She retired in 2005.
Roland Weston Hart reflected on his time as a student at the school.
“When I got home, I heard about everything that was going on at school, and I was so happy,” said Roland Weston Hart. “Whenever I was at Mars Hill, I always went there. I’m so thrilled. … I’m so happy to see what happened. After reading so much (about the school), when I came home and started hearing all this, I said, ‘I have to get involved.’ I’m so glad I got involved.”
Wyatt thanked community members at the ceremony and open house honoring the completion of the rehabilitation. West Sound, a band made up of two of Roland Weston Hart’s sons, including Mount Olive Drive resident Oscar Weston, performed for guests at the ceremony.
“I really feel like we honored the tradition of this school today,” Wyatt said. “We shared music. We shared history, and now we have fried fish. How much better can it get?”