Willow Hill: Standing the Test of Time - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

Willow Hill: Standing the Test of Time

Courtesy: Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center Courtesy: Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center

It's a story that began shortly after the civil war; in 1874, a group of former slaves in Portal, GA. transformed a turpentine shanty into a makeshift classroom for children. It was the first planned family school in the area.

The first teacher was 15 year old Georgiana Riggs who learned to read and write when it was considered an abomination.

Today, the legacy that began in that little wooden shack is kept alive in what is now known as the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center- a museum dedicated to the founders and descendants of the school.

While the building itself has gone through a number of transformations, it's history has remained intact.

In 1920, the privately owned institution became a part of the Bulloch County School System when it was sold for only 18 dollars.

In 1971, it was integrated... and by its closing in 1999, had become the longest active school in existence in Bulloch County.

It's where 74 year old Hazel Lee Allen received her early education. Here she is in 2nd grade with the class of 1946.
It's the school her father, mother, and grandparents attended. In fact, 5 generations of her family would pass through its doors.

Her mother Bonnie was a substitute teacher from 1918 to 1920.
Allen would later return as a teacher herself.

That is the story of most of the families here- documented by the scores of pictures, articles, binders of records.

It's where Ozell Lawrence met his wife of 56 years. He was in 5th grade; she was in 2nd.
"This school means a whole lot to me. Because that's where my education started, you know.. in 5th grade... and I went through 10th."

He says one of his fondest memories is captured in a photo of him and his prize winning pig.
"My AG teacher told us within a month, the boy who had the largest pig would win a prize.
I put 109 pounds on my pig in 30 days. He weighed 175 pounds and I was the one who go that first place prize."

But not all of the memories are of happier times.
By 1946, Willow Hill had become a meeting place for political activity- making it a target for the Ku Klux Klan.
Despite threats, intimidation, even a cross burning... the community and the school survived.

So when the board of education put the building up for auction in 2005, they knew something had to be done to save their school. The descendents of the original founders pooled their resources together to buy the property at a price tag of $113,000.

"We bought the school for more than what is was worth," Allen says, "but because of our ancestors, we wanted the landmark. We wanted to keep the legacy alive."

Now, there are plans to make sure the legacy that was started in that small turpentine shanty will be remembered on a larger scale for generations to come.
The descendants are working to make the Center a nationally recognized museum full of exhibits and programs that will continue to tell their story- one they hope will never be forgotten.

The descendants are working to make the center a nationally recognized museum full of exhibits and programs that will continue to tell their story.

So far, their efforts seem to be working and word about the history of Willow Hill is spreading. In fact, the Statesboro Mall now has a small exhibit dedicated to the historic site.

For more information on Willow Hill, visit: www.willowhillheritage.org

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