Historic Black School Burns

Ruth Harwell, left, stands with Ruth Mayes in front of where the Canaan School stood for nearly 92 years. Photo by Clint Confehr

By Clint Confehr

COLUMBIA, TN — Officials are investigating a fire that destroyed an historic Rosenwald school in the Canaan community. The sheriff cautiously said “no indicator … of foul play” had been found. He and community leaders don’t want to jump to a conclusion.

“There so much going on that it’s hard to … speculate. It was a tragic loss,” said the Rev. Tylan Orr, pastor of Canaan AME Church which insured the school across Ashwood Road from the church. “I’m not sure what the cause is, so I’d rather not say anything and then be wrong.”

Maury County Sheriff Bucky Rowland said “The point of origin came from the front of the building.” The fire “worked back through the building … The breaker box was at the front of the building, but it has not been determined that it was or was not the point of origin.”

No forced entry was found; no threats reported; no disagreement over property lines, nor sign of flammable liquids, Rowland said. Two people told him it has to be arson, but he has no evidence of that. State crime lab test results are pending.

The FBI is aware of the July 5 fire.

“It’s a loss to the community,” Property Assessor Bobby Daniels said. The 835-square-foot building “is an exempt parcel.” He declined to state a value for it.

Noting the school’s historical significance, Paco Havard, president of the NAACP here, said he’s “waiting to hear what law enforcement comes up with. We don’t want to jump to any conclusion … because of the climate today.”

County Historian Jo Ann McClellan, president of the African American Heritage Society here, “went to a Rosenwald school from grades 2-8” in the Theta Community. It “was a two-teacher school. Canaan was a one-teacher school,” McClellan said. “In 2015, the National Trust for Historic Preservation classified these schools as National Treasures.”

Rosenwald schools followed Freedmen’s Bureau schools built during Reconstruction.

“By the 1900s, the county was taking care of Freedmen’s schools. They were woefully under-funded and falling apart, so Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald collaborated,” McClellan said. As a Sears, Roebuck & Co. titan, Rosenwald matched millions of dollars from communities providing land and labor for schools. Washington, the most influential spokesman for Blacks during 1895-1915, might best be known as the first president of what’s now Tuskegee University.

With 5,500 Rosenwald schools built in the south, McClellan said, “They also built homes for teachers near the schools. From 1917-1930, they spent nearly $30 million. In Tennessee there were about 350, and 15 in Maury County.” Four or five were built for about $24,000 during 1928-29 when the Canaan school was built. “Now, there are only two left” here, she said. “Fisk University has a database on the schools.”

The fire was first reported to Mt. Pleasant’s fire department, Sheriff Rowland said. “We received the call shortly after 5 a.m.”

Ruth Harwell, 93: attended the Canaan School; became a teacher at Sandy Hook, Clark, Haylong and Mt. Pleasant schools; and said Rowland called her at about 5:30 a.m. that Sunday. “When we got up it was … just smoldering … We wish we knew” the cause. “I don’t know how it could have been” accidental, Harwell said. “We had lights in there, but they’ve not been used” recently.

Ruth Mayes, 75, of Canaan, said, “The switch is always cut off after an event.” Mayes’ mother, Annie Louise Woodson, 103, taught at the Canaan School.

Asked about the fire, Woodson replied, “I don’t know but to trust in God. He’ll straighten it out.”

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Clint Confehr
About Clint Confehr 219 Articles
Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical Area began in the summer of 1980. Clint's covered news in several Southern states at newspapers, radio stations and one TV station. Married since 1982, he's a grandfather and is semi-retired from daily news work.