Warren County woman fights to preserve memories from area's first black school

Harveysburg free black school founded in 1831

HARVEYSBURG, Ohio -- A local woman who has spent decades preserving a piece of black history in the heart of a predominately white Warren County village is trying to revive community interest in the struggling landmark today.

Lucy McCarren, 87, of Harveysburg shows up at the drop of hat when someone calls her to ask for a tour of the first free black school in the Northwest Territory.

But no one called this February -- annually observed as Black History Month.

“It’s a unique thing, I think, for us to have this building this long, this early in the history of the black people,” McCarren said.

The one-room building, which now sits among houses on a tiny street in the once-heavily Quaker village of Harveysburg, became a school for blacks in 1831. 

Black children were welcome in the state at that time, but were not allowed to mingle with white children in schools.  The school was founded by Elizabeth Harvey, a local Quaker who believed that black children should be educated, too.

“Well, that’s their way to freedom. If we don’t have an education, we can’t upgrade ourselves in any jobs,” said McCarren.

McCarren, who sat on the village council in the 1970’s and is now the treasurer for the Harveysburg Community Historical Society, helped to purchase the historic building for about $10,000 in 1977 and restore it to its original form.

“It has been one of my pet projects, of course, all these years,” she said.

The one-room school had been transformed into a four-room dwelling after the school closed in the early 1900’s.

“We had to tear out the partitions and restore it back to the one-room classroom,” said McCarren. “The two black boards we found in the wall—embedded in the wall. They are slate blackboards.”

While the blackboards were the same used for more than a hundred years ago, McCarren and the others who helped with the project had a hard time finding out what happened to the rest of the historic room.

“When the building was sold, I don’t know what became of their desks or any of those things. I’m sure there wasn’t much here other than desks,” she said. “Any personal belongings, the children would have taken. We don’t have any idea of what was left here.”

McCarren said there are few known details about the children who went to the school and she doesn’t know how many attended. Harvey, the school’s founder, moved to another state and took the earliest records with her, too.

An old picture in front of the school shows more than 30 black students standing outside. 

Despite the lack of records from the school’s earliest days, McCarren and the others who helped to restore the building were on a mission to find out all they could.

She interviewed one of the school’s last students, who was 102 years old and in a nursing home, before the woman died in 1981. The former student graduated in 1898.

She also talked family members of former teachers.

“Were trying to preserve it for them more than for ourselves because it is a part of black history,“ she said.

The classroom is now filled with other artifacts from Harveysburg’s history, but McCarren said she has a vision to move those items elsewhere.

“We want to keep this maintained as just a one-room school. We do have dreams of building another building in our yard that we could house all of our artifacts,” she said.

But for now, times are tough for the one-room museum.

“It’s been a big thing all of these years to maintain this building and keep it going,” she said. “We have it here for the people to remember some of the history of the students who went here, but it’s a little difficult. We are struggling a bit.”

Visitors only come sporadically, and many don’t know the history is there, said McCarren.

But just as the many students who went to that school surely overcame hard times, McCarren is hopeful the historical building will, too.

“It shows the human side of man. We do care about other people, other nationalities and other minority groups,” she said. “It’s interesting to know how years ago there were people who cared then, and instead of keeping people in slavery, we were finally able to let them be as free as the white people were free and be able to get their education.”

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