SOUTH MILLS, N.C.
Virginia Jones slowly made her way to the podium, stopping for a second to tell a small gathering that she had done her homework.
Indeed she had, waving a scrap book and telling stories about some of the pages.
"Do I remember? Yes, I remember," she said repeatedly.
After graduating from college in 1948, she got a job at a small school for African American children in South Mills. Her husband would become the principal.
"All the people who were teachers here, except me, are with the Lord," Jones said Saturday at the site of the McBride Colored School, what is now the home of the Rosenwald Community Center.
After Jones, several former students, Camden County Commissioner Tom White and county manager Ken Bowman spoke, the group headed outside to dedicate a new roadside marker — funded by residents and the county, and dedicated Saturday — honoring the history of the location.
The McBride school opened in 1926 with financing from Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago philanthropist and owner of Sears and Roebuck. Rosenwald built nearly 5,000 schools in the south, catering mostly to rural black children. There were 813 schools, including one in the Belcross area of Camden, in North Carolina — more than any other state.
For the ceremony, a model of the old school was made by Clement Spence of Elizabeth City. Former students marveled at its likeliness.
Rosewald said at the time that he was captivated by reading the autobiography of Booker T. Washington in 1910. He formed a partnership with Washington a year later and in 1912 celebrated his 50th birthday by donating $700,000 (approximately $16 million today) to help build schools.
When Rosenwald died in 1932, educators at the time said that more than 35 percent of black children in the south were educated in one of his schools.
The McBride school had four classrooms and an auditorium, office and kitchen.
It operated until closing in 1961, falling in disrepair over the years and being torn down in 1996.
The Rosenwald Community Center has occupied the site since then. The center serves as a meeting place and hosts a variety of fund-raising and family functions.
Last year, former students Jacob and Chiquita Mitchell joined with county resident LaVon Scott to get the ball rolling on funding for the historical marker. The county contributed $1,500.
While the old school has been gone for years, its memories have been tough to fade.
"I'm a scholar who appreciated the process of learning," said Dr. June Harris, a former student and keynote speaker. "I don't know what would have happened to me, to all of the students here, if it were not for the Rosenwald School and teachers like Ms. Jones. They laid the foundation.
"I've spoken all over the world and I always talked about my foundation in education. And that was here on this site."
In its day, the school was about as plain as a school could be — no air conditioning, no running water, a potbelly stove to keep dozens of students warm in harsh winters, an outhouse for when nature called.
Yet it was much appreciated by the students who learned there.
"Oh, we had a swing and a slide and a merry-go-round in the playground," said Sonny Griffin, who took classes there from the first through eighth grades. "We didn't understand how the place got to be our school."
Jones had several stories to tell during her talk, like the time a man came up to her in the post office several years ago.
"He said 'Ms. Jones, Ms. Jones, is that you,'" she said. "'I thought you were dead.'
"I told him no, I wasn't dead, but I had been sick for a while. It just wasn't my time."