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Saving black history: Organizers want to preserve former school in Edna

By BY ERICA RODRIGUEZ - ERODRIGUEZ@VICAD.COM
Jan. 17, 2010 at 11:02 p.m.
Updated Jan. 17, 2010 at 7:18 p.m.

A shattered glass window exposing books inside a classroom at the Carver Community Center stands in the way of the board members who are working very hard at preserving the site. Community members are trying to save the school and face $14,000 in back taxes. At right, is an undated photo depicting a graduating class at George Washington Carver School.

TO LEARN MORE

For more information on the George Washington Carver Community Center call 361-484-6631.

GETTING HISTORIC SITE TAX RELIEF

Section 11.24 of the Texas Property Tax Code says that a taxing entity may exempt from taxation part of all of the assessed value of a structure and the land surrounding the structure if the structure is: designated as a recorded Texas historical landmark by the Texas Historical Commission; or if it is designated as a historically significant site in need of tax relief to encourage its preservation pursuant to an ordinance or other law adopted by the governing body.

WHAT'S NEXT

The George Washington Carver Community Center will go before the Edna school board to petition for historic site recognition and $7,843 of tax relief at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Sam Houston Cafeteria at Meadie Pumphrey Junior High School.

Although they are not listed as an action item on the agenda, center organizers will speak during the open forum portion of the meeting.

EDNA - The campus is mostly empty.

Old computer desks still litter the hallways where once only black children were allowed.

What was once known as the George Washington Carver School, the only black high school in Jackson County, could be lost.

"When they vacated the school, it was left in shambles," said Bertha Brooks, an Edna native, standing in the class she once called homeroom.

Brooks is among a group of organizers who are hoping to preserve the school campus and what they believe is a milestone of black history in Edna.

But time is running out.

The George Washington Carver Community Center, the non-profit organization that now owns the property, owes about $14,410 of taxes due at the end of January.

The center, a shoestring operation that operates mostly off of donations, has little means of paying.

The community center bought the property in October 2008 for $100 from the Edna school district with the intention of using it as a space for social services. The center organizers were the only bidder.

Since then, they have hosted community groups like Workforce Solutions, sports teams and Cub Scouts and have plans for a food bank and charter school.

Despite its mission of empowering the community, the organization does not qualify as a charitable group under Texas Tax Property Code and must still pay taxes.

"It's a situation that would really be good for the community, but the way the laws are set up at this time there's no way we can really exempt it," said Damon Moore, chief appraiser for Jackson County.

In a final effort to have the taxes exempt, the board is petitioning each taxing entity for "historic site" status.

A piece of history

The first records of a black school in Jackson County date to court records from the 1880s. The Edna Colored School was later built in the city limits around the turn of the century. Later, E.T. and Mamie White Rose donated 12.5 acres for the George Washington Carver School and the building was completed in 1954.

It served as the only black high school in Jackson County until 1966, when the Edna school district, under pressure from the federal government, integrated its high school students.

Former students remember life at the school as close-knit and spirited.

"For a lot of people there were a lot of memories," said Horace Evans, Sr., 63, a former Carver football player who was in the last graduating class before desegregation.

The school was well-known for its sports teams and homecoming parades during a time when black and white societies did not mix. The Carver Tigers went on to state semi-finals in football and won state titles in girls' track.

"It's a lot of history, especially in smaller towns," Evans said. "It's like they were trying to wash away a bad era to get rid of it completely."

The children who attended Carver have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers. Many have relocated to other cities or states, but the memory of the place still lives.

"For us, it's history, it's memories, and it won't happen again," said Evans' wife, Virginia.

The two were high school sweethearts and later married. Virginia Evans went on to become a school teacher in Edna and is now retired.

"They can say what they want to say, but it's historical," she said. ". It's a legacy."

A taxing matter

But the arguments from officials over whether to grant tax relief vary.

"It's one of those things where you want to help if you can," said Jackson County Judge Harrison Stafford. "We really don't have anything in the community like what they want to do, so we really need it."

But officials are in limbo over situation. The city tabled the item after discussion Jan. 7, and the commissioners' court will not review the issue again until February, Stafford said.

Stafford worries that by granting historic site recognition the case might set a precedent for other old structures in town. He also worries that the tax relief would be transferrable to whomever might purchase the campus next.

Mayor Joe Hermes questions the history of the place because it has not been designated as by the Texas Historical Commission, and Edna Superintendent Bob Wells worries how an exemption might affect the budget.

"What they're really asking us to do is a $7,000-$8,000 budget cut," Wells said.

Organizers have gone before the four taxing entities to ask for "historic site" status and tax relief.

Although they have received no official word from the entities, they are hopeful the resolution will grant them the relief they need to continue to operate.

"We don't intend to give up the building anyway," Virginia Evans said. "God blessed us with the building. Worry and faith don't go hand and hand. I just know somehow we'll come out on time."

But even if all five of the entities vote to grant historic site recognition, the $14,410 tax bill cannot be retroactively forgiven, Moore said.

"There's just some times I wish the law would spell it out a little bit clearer in situations like this," he said.

A part of the community

The school is located in a historically black neighborhood in Edna once known as the Harlem Addition.

After the school was forced to desegregate in 1966, the campus was expanded over time and was used as Edna Elementary until the mid-1990s.

Since the board purchased the property, vandalism has been an issue.

A few smashed windows mar the building, and signs warning vandals to stay away have been torn down.

"That puts a strain on us because we have to replace it," Brooks said as she passed the shattered glass.

Although most agree preserving the building is a matter of black history, organizers insist what the center will offer for the future will benefit the entire community.

"We as a group of concerned people thought, why not keep that school in the community as a community center?" Evans said. "Not for the blacks, not for the whites, not for the Hispanics or the Asians. It's available for this community of Edna. ... Anything that's worthwhile having - it takes everybody doing there part."

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