“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” — George Orwell
Augusta seems to be an expert at tearing down its own history.
Earlier this week, Historic Augusta, Inc. announced that the Richmond County Board of Education had demolished the historic Cauley-Wheeler Memorial Building on the Lucy C. Laney High School campus.
The Cauley-Wheeler Memorial Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008 and the building was a significant piece of the school’s history.
Built in 1924, the Cauley-Wheeler building was once a part of the Haines Normal and Industrial School.
“The building is the last remaining structure from the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, a school charted by Lucy Craft Laney in 1886 to educate black children,” according to the Lucy Craft Laney High School Alumni Association’s website. “Most of the school’s buildings were razed when it closed in 1949 to make way for Laney High, but the Cauley-Wheeler building remained, reminding all of the educator’s legacy and history.”
So the question is, why tear it down now?
Back in 1883, Laney founded the Haines Normal and Industrial School for the education of black students. By 1912, the Haines Institute employed 34 teachers, enrolled 900 students and offered a fifth year of college preparatory high school.
Some of Haines graduates made their way to Howard, Fisk, Yale and other prestigious universities.
But the school was not only a place for basic education, it also served as a cultural center for the black community, according to the Georgia Humanities Council at the University of Georgia.
The school hosted orchestra concerts, lectures by nationally famous guests and several social events. Laney also inaugurated the first kindergarten and created the first nursing training programs for black women in Augusta.
Clearly, after learning the news that the Cauley-Wheeler building had been destroyed, representatives of Historic Augusta were shocked.
In a press release issued this week, Historic Augusta stated the destruction of the Cauley-Wheeler Memorial Building is the first demolition of a building in Richmond County that had been individually designated on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Congress established the National Register in 1966 as a part of the National Historic Preservation Act,” the press release stated. “The current expansion of Laney High by the Richmond County Board of Education did not incorporate the historic site into its plan, in spite of its historic designation. Erected in 1924 as a kindergarten, the building was the last permanent structure built under the management of Miss Lucy Craft Laney, leader of the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute.”
In 1949, the Haines Athletic Association leased the campus for 999 years to the Richmond County Board of Education, the press release stated.
“The sad thing about the loss is that the Board of Education could have incorporated the historic building into its expansion plans if there had been the will to do so,” stated Erick Montgomery, executive director of Historic Augusta, Inc. “It would have been an important centerpiece for the education of students at Laney, giving them a tangible connection to their school’s historical significance.”
Historic Augusta included the Cauley-Wheeler Memorial Building on its Endangered Properties List in 2013 after it was learned that expansion plans for the Laney campus threatened its future existence. Because there were no federal funds involved, the National Register listing was powerless to save the building from demolition, Montgomery explained in the press release.
In an almost laughable suggestion, the Board of Education has offered to erect a “replica of the original building” nearby for use by the Haines Alumni Association as a meeting facility.
Of course a replica won’t be eligible for listing in the National Register, as buildings generally must meet a 50-year minimum age requirement, Historic Augusta’s press release stated.
Doesn’t this go against everything that the Lucy Craft Laney Museum and Historic Augusta teamed up to prevent happening back in 2010?
The two groups started a program called “This Place Matters: Preserving Augusta’s African American Communities” to help prevent the further deterioration of Augusta’s historic black neighborhoods.
To this day, people still talk about the Lenox Theatre, a regional treasure of black entertainment, that fell into disrepair and was torn down by the city in 1978.
The Lenox Theatre was built in 1921 and designed by Geoffrey Lloyd Preacher, the same architect who built the Imperial and Modjeska theaters that served white audiences.
It was a fabulous example of black achievement and a source of community pride.
A lot of cities preserve their theaters, but Augusta didn’t. We lost it.
Besides the loss of the Lenox, many Augustans mourn the undignified fate that befell the home of novelist Frank Yerby, which languished on Eighth Street before it was donated and moved to Paine College, where it deteriorated to the point it had to be dismantled and unceremoniously rebuilt.
Though Paine called the major renovations a “stunning success,” historians vehemently disagree.
It’s no longer the Yerby House. It’s a brand new house without any historic significance because Paine College allowed Yerby’s original house to sit there and rot away.
So is Augusta learning anything from losing these historic structures throughout the community?
This week proved Augusta and, in particular, the Board of Education, hasn’t learned a damn thing, which is really discouraging.
After all, isn’t the Richmond County Board of Education supposed to be all about educating youth throughout our community?
Well, the lesson this week, boys and girls, is this: Tear down the old. Erect the new. Forget the past. Simply focus on the future.
Nothing is worth saving anymore.