NEOSHO, Mo. — The small, yellow, run-down house at 639 Young St. — now more than 140 years old — no longer looks like much, but HistoriCorps plans to change that.
Owned by the Carver Birthplace Association, the house was built in 1872 as the Neosho Colored School and is today one of the oldest surviving schoolhouses for black children in Missouri. It was the first school attended by George Washington Carver, one of the 20th century's most important scientists.
HistoriCorps, a nonprofit organization, puts students and volunteers to work saving historic places around the country. They started work this week to restore the school to its 1872 appearance.
The nonprofit Carver Birthplace Association is paying HistoriCorps $36,000 for the restoration, but without the help of HistoriCorps, the work would cost upward of $50,000, CBA officials estimate. The association exists to encourage the scientific, educational, historical and interpretive activities of the National Park Service at George Washington Carver National Monument, near Diamond, and to promote Carver's legacy. Arvest Bank donated the school building to the CBA after acquiring it through foreclosure in 2004.
“The whole goal of the project is to restore the home to its 1870s appearance as a schoolhouse,” said Jim Heaney, superintendent of the national monument.
Heaney said the Park Service might eventually restore the inside of the building. In the meantime, the CBA is hoping the exterior restoration will get the schoolhouse on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Being on the National Register means its significance is recognized; that potentially opens it up for grants and additional funding,” Heaney said. “It definitely gives it distinction, but it also helps preserve it for good.”
Since the late 1870s, when Carver attended school there, the house has been covered with fiberboard siding, aluminum trim and vinyl siding, and has seen lean-to additions, a porch and a concrete patio, according to John Bales, project supervisor with HistoriCorps. All of those things will be removed during the next three weeks, he said, and a deteriorated sill plate will be replaced.
“Our game plan is to expose the original building,” Bales said.
HistoriCorps' mission is to save and sustain historic places for public benefit, and the group has tackled 170 projects in 21 states since 2009. This year it plans to finish 30 more projects from New Hampshire to California.
Two HistoriCorps supervisors are at every site, but volunteers perform the bulk of the physical work. In Neosho, three HistoriCorps teams will be working on the restoration. Each group will work for four and a half days.
“We welcome everybody,” Bales said. “If it weren’t for the volunteers coming, we couldn’t do what we do. We can’t appreciate them enough because they work a lot harder than we do.”
“The aim and goal of this particular project is to remove everything that is not original to the structure,” said Kim Mailes, CBA liaison. “It will probably look worse instead of better, but we’ll be on our way.”
Ann McCormick, executive director of the CBA, said that without the help of HistoriCorps, the renovation of the Carver schoolhouse would be nearly impossible.
But if the group is intimidated, it needs to look no further than Carver himself for inspiration. Born into slavery near the end of the Civil War, Carver, at age 11, walked 8 miles from his birthplace near Diamond to the school in Neosho.
“To be an 11-year-old and want an education that bad is pretty rare,” McCormick said.
Carver attended the school in Neosho for a few years before leaving for Kansas to further his education. He was accepted everywhere he applied until it was learned that he was black, according to McCormick.
The CBA has multiple educators on the board, and they thought the salvation of the school attended by someone who cared so much about education was important.
“He did it with everything against him,” McCormick said. “He had nothing in his corner. We feel like this is very important."
Want to help?
Anyone who would like to volunteer to help on the the Carver schoolhouse project or at another HistoriCorps project may go to historicorps.org.