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Man seeks to uncover forgotten black history

March 19, 2001

Man seeks to uncover forgotten black history



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg
Peter Miller

Above: Peter Miller of Martinsburg, above, looks at the abandoned school building on the site of an old plantation above Opequon Creek in Berkeley County, W.Va.

Below: Known as Douglass Grove School, the building was a one-room school house for African-American children, probably from the late 1880s until the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Photos:

KEVIN G. GILBERT

staff photographer

Douglass Grove School



On the site of an old plantation above Opequon Creek in Berkeley County, W.Va., a dilapidated, one room, brick-and stone building sits mutely, windows broken, wine bottles littering the porch. The building is held up partly by old tintype newspaper plates that help serve as walls.

Peter Miller of Martinsburg believes he can coax a few stories out of the tired old structure, if only he can find the people who know them.

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Miller, 48, is on a mission to find and preserve black history in Berkeley County. The old building, he believes, is part of that.

Sitting alongside what used to be known as Strodes Meeting Road - now Douglas Grove Road - it served as a one-room school house for African-American children, probably from the late 1880s until the late 1950s or early 1960s, he said.

Known as Douglass Grove School, it was a segregated school in those years when separate but equal was still the way of learning in parts of America.

"We're trying to reach out the public, to see if people have memories of it," he said.

The first mention Miller can find of the school is from an 1889 "Catalogue of the Public Schools of Berkeley County W.Va." by D.H. Dodd, then superintendent. It lists 11 schools in the Arden district including "Douglass Grove (colored)."

He has no idea where the name came from. An 1847 map of the county lists no Douglass, Douglas or Grove in that area.

That same map notes there were 1,900 slaves in Berkeley County and 300 free blacks. The area of the school is probably rich in black history, he said.

A black cemetery still sits across the street from the old school and there used to be a black church near the cemetery, he said.

The plantation itself must have been prominent in the county, he said.

"It was massive," he said. "What is now the airport used to be part of the plantation."

Miller has formed the Berkeley County Black History Society. But he hasn't been able to learn much about the school.

"They have no records on this," Miller said of the school district.

What he is hoping is that people with memories of the school will be willing to share them once they know someone is trying to document the history.

He hopes people might remember photos, documents such as class lists, oral histories or written history, information on deceased or living students.

He wants to put whatever he can find on display at the Martinsburg Public Library.

Like many people who want to save pieces of the past, Miller said it's important to preserve a record of what has happened before.

"A lot of this information is going to be lost if it's not gotten now," he said. "A lot of this has really been neglected."

Miller has found a number of slave cemeteries in the county and has cleaned up some of them, including the one near the school.

He's not trying to save the school itself, but remarked with a sigh that he's heard it may be torn down for apartments.

"It's been abandoned," he said of the school. "I think it's a shame it's been let go like this."

Anyone with information about the old school house can reach Miller at 1-304-263-5613.

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