UCA receives $634,594 grant to revitalize Bigelow Rosenwald School

The University of Central Arkansas has received a $634,594 grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council (ANCRC) to revitalize and preserve the Bigelow Rosenwald School, which was built in 1926 through support from the Rosenwald Fund. 

The Rosenwald Fund, created in 1912 by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, provided money to help build state-of-the art elementary schools for African American children across the South. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the effort has been called “the most important initiative to advance black education in the early 20th century.” 

“Rosenwald Schools remain a cornerstone of African American communities, but their existence and the important role they played in education and history is not widely known,” said UCA President Houston Davis. “We hope to preserve and uplift this important piece of Arkansas and American history, while working with Bigelow community members to ensure the facility meets their needs and accurately tells their story.” 

The Bigelow school, which now serves as a community cultural center, was one of 389 Rosenwald schools built in Arkansas. According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, only 18 Rosenwald buildings remain in Arkansas today. 

According to the National Register of Historic Places registration Form (arkansaspreservation.com/National-Register-Listings), the Bigelow Rosenwald School is a one-story, wood-framed school located in the Community of Toad Suck, approximately 10 miles northeast of Bigelow. It sits at the southwest corner of Arkansas Highway 60 and Bethel AME Road, and a baseball field is located to the west of the building.

In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Rosenwald Schools on the “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” list. The Bigelow Rosenwald School was also included in the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas’s 2012 list of “Most Endangered Places,” making restoration a critical mission for the state.

Mel Williams has lived in Bigelow for more than 40 years and has served as president of the Rosenwald Community Cultural Center board for the past decade. He said the community has hoped to renovate the building for many years. He and others are thankful for local support and the opportunity to finally restore the historic facility. 

“Sen. [Jason] Rapert has been very faithful in assisting us in getting this job done. I have been in this community for 48 years, and he is the only state representative who has been involved in this community,” said Williams. “Rapert got [U.S. Rep.] French Hill involved, and both have been excellent supporters of this project. They attend every event we host.”

“After five years of communication, collaboration and cooperation, this funding is a victory for the people of Central Arkansas,” said Hill. “I look forward to UCA’s collaborative partnership with the Rosenwald Community Cultural Center to restore the building so that the center can once again be a place for communities to thrive.”

UCA will use the grant funding from the ANCRC to renovate the building, following the Secretary of Interiors’ “Standards for Rehabilitation” for historic structures. The university will also provide parking, accessibility, landscaping, security and lighting that mirrors what is provided on the UCA campus. 

Upon completion, the facility will serve as a museum that educates visitors on the historical significance of Rosenwald Schools in African American communities in the South. It will also remain a community cultural center for Bigelow and will become a location where UCA can host community classes, meetings and other gatherings. 

“We sincerely thank the ANCRC for the funding and support to revitalize this property and keep this very important piece of history alive,” said Davis. “I also want to thank Dr. Charlotte Green and the UCA College of Education for their leadership on this project and further connecting our 113-year mission and history of teacher education to this Arkansas treasure.”

ANCRC has funded the restoration and preservation of iconic properties across the state, including the Arkansas State Capitol, Old Main at the University of Arkansas, Lakeport Plantation in Chicot County and the Johnny Cash Home in Dyess. 

“The ANCRC Trust Fund has funded over $400 million in projects since its first grants were made in 1989,” said Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism and secretary of the ANCRC. “Many well-loved buildings and properties have been saved for future generations by the fund, and we are a better state for it.”