The inside of the Ridgeley Rosenwald School in Capitol Heights after renovations were completed in 2011 (Courtesy of Preservation Maryland)
The inside of the Ridgeley Rosenwald School in Capitol Heights after renovations were completed in 2011 (Courtesy of Preservation Maryland)

Prince George’s County residents can come to a birthday party this month, but the celebration isn’t for a specific person.

The Ridgeley Rosenwald School will celebrate 90 years Sunday, Feb. 26, when it first opened as a school for black students. A total of 27 were established in the county, built with money from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which helped fund the construction of nearly 5,000 black schools in the South during the early 20th century.

Today, the building in Capitol Heights remains in use as a museum for appointment-only tours and community meetings. It is operated in partnership with the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation and Prince George’s County Alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.

A 2015 documentary about the Rosenwald School has been featured locally and nationwide to highlight a partnership to build schools for black children between Jewish businessman and Sears, Roebuck and Co. owner Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington.

The film by Aviva Kempner, which will be showcased this year at various cities across the country, features interviews with Rosenwald alumni Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) and the late poet and activist Maya Angelou.

The late NAACP chairman Julian Bond also gave remarks in the film.

“It’s a wonderful story of cooperation between this philanthropist who did not have to care about black people,” Bond said. “[Rosenwald] expended his considerable wealth in ensuring that they got their fair shake in America.”

The schools were built in 15 states for nearly two decades until 1932. After the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 against segregation in public schools, many of the buildings were abandoned or demolished.

According to Preservation Maryland of Baltimore, which advocates the maintenance of historical sites and structures throughout the state, about 53 Rosenwald buildings still exist. The organization’s website lists details about each building such as location, condition, current use and cost of construction.

Prince George’s has nine including the Capitol Heights building — originally called Colored School No. 1 — in Election District 13, which is currently listed in “excellent” condition.

It cost about $5,300 to build the two-classroom edifice in 1927, according to Preservation Maryland. Renovations were completed in 2011 to open as a museum.

The others eight structures are used as churches, lodges, a residence, a shop, a used-car sales office and a Head Start center.

The county has the second-most number of Rosenwald buildings in the state behind Anne Arundel County.

Sunday’s program in Capitol Heights will feature presentations to honor graduates of Ridgeley.

The family who owned the small tract of land spells it differently — Ridgley. Arthur and Mary Eliza Dyson Ridgley sold two acres of the land in 1927 to the county’s Board of Education. The county used part of a Rosenwald donation to build a new Ridgeley School.

A keynote speech will be delivered by Elizabeth Hewlett, the first woman and first black chairwoman of the Prince George’s County Planning Board and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

For more information about the event, call 301-333-6560, or go to http://bit.ly/2kyUl77. For more on the history of the Ridgely family, go to http://bit.ly/2lixXfi.

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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