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Grand Vision For Hartford's Northwest School

Community Group Hopes To Turn It Into African American History Museum

By STEVEN GOODE

October 02, 2010

HARTFORD Barbara Alleyne, an elementary schoolteacher in the city for 35 years, never taught in the old Northwest School on Albany Avenue.

But the vacant, crumbling building in the city's North End has become an important part of her life.

As she walked through the school earlier this week, it didn't look much worthy of being onthe National Register of Historic Places, where it earned a place in June. The roof leaks, and there is no electricity or running water. Chunks of plaster lay in piles on the floor, and the second floor isn't accessible because of a deteriorating staircase.

But Alleyne and a small group of organizers hope to raise $3 million to restore and transform the building into the John E. Rogers African American Cultural Center, a showcase for what they say is one of the largest privately owned collections of African American historical artifacts.

The Northwest School was chosen because of its own place in Hartford's African American history. It was built in 1891 to replace a one-room schoolhouse, is mostly in its original form and is significant to the African American residents of the North End.

"I want this place to tell history from the moment they walk in the door," Alleyne said.

The Rogers Cultural Center has been looking for a permanent home for nearly 20 years. It was established in 1991 by friends and relatives of Rogers, who died in 1982. For a time, it was housed in the Hartford Medical Society Building at 230 Scarborough St.

Rogers, born in Hartford, was a postal worker for more than 40 years. But he also had a deep interest in the study of African American life, history and culture, with a focus on Hartford and Connecticut..

Over his lifetime, he accumulated a vast store of African American historical artifacts, including artwork, articles, photographs and personal histories. Among other things, his collection highlights the legacy of black doctors, legislators and actors from Hartford and the state.

Rogers became so knowledgeable on the subject that he was a consultant on black history at the University of Hartford and taught the subject at Greater Hartford Community College.

"He found there was so much history in the state to be told. He was always willing to talk about African American history," said Alleyne, who met Rogers when they were neighbors on Clark Street. She'd also see him at a post office across the street from where she taught.

Some of his collection was compiled into traveling exhibits, including one on the Tuskegee Airmen, that are available for loan. But the collection today sits packed away in two rooms of the former Greater Hartford Urban League building across the street from Northwest School.

When Rogers died, he left his collection to the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, to which both his daughter and Alleyne belonged.

"We knew he wanted his materials used in a meaningful way," Alleyne said.

Alleyne envisions the walls of Northwest School covered with African American art and historical displays, with a lecture area and rooms filled with exhibits, including an audio-visual component and an place for children to learn about history.

Along with securing the National Register designation, the Rogers Cultural Center organizers signed a 33-year lease with the city to use Northwest School, for $1 a year.

John B. Stewart, Hartford's first African American fire chief and the first African American to be chief of an urban department in New England, is confident the cultural center's dream is close to becoming a reality.

"We look at this as the beginning of the finalization of a permanent home," Stewart said of the historic designation. "African American history is very rich. People should know how we got to where we are."

Stewart plans to help the cause by donating items from his firefighting career. He said the historic designation should make it easier to raise money to renovate the building, which has been empty and deteriorating since the late 1990s.

"We're hoping that more people will want to be a part of it," Alleyne said. The group plans to mail out an appeal for donations and seek grants from foundations and the state.

Tyler Smith, an architect who has been consulting with the group on the necessary repairs, said that aside from the rear gable, where most of the structural and water damage has occurred, the school is salvageable.

"It's got good bones. It's not in bad shape," said Smith, adding that the center had received about $50,000 in emergency funds from the Connecticut Trust for Historical Preservation to stabilize the building. The money will be used to make structural repairs and waterproof the roof before winter.

Smith said that with the construction of the new Albany Avenue branch library nearby and the demolition of the old branch, Northwest School will soon be more visible from the street. The area should also be full of new activity. Two new schools have moved into the Fox Middle School building nearby, and the Artists Collective and the University of Hartford's Handel Performing Arts Center are close by.

Karen Senich, executive director of the state's Culture and Tourism Bureau and a state historic preservation officer, said the Rogers cultural center, by virtue of the Historic Register designation, will be eligible to apply for up to $200,000 in grants that require a dollar-for-dollar match.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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