Students smoke and eat lunch next to the padlocked building, which has two windows, a small fireplace and plaster walls. "You kind of look at it and then you forget about it," VCU undergraduate Larry Lanberg says.
But Lanberg, who works in the annex building, wondered about the modest house and somehow couldn't forget it. After months of research, he has concluded that it may be one of the oldest buildings on the medical campus.
Lanberg believes it was built sometime before 1835 as a schoolhouse for former slaves associated with the First African Baptist Church.
Lanberg is studying clinical laboratory science but has a bent for history, he says. His investigation was sparked by VCU Professor Robert A. Kravetz, who had wondered "what that little building in the back was."
Lanberg found the answers he sought in insurance documents from 1835 and 1858, which showed a little building, labeled "school house," sitting next to the east wing of the First African Baptist Church. The original church was torn down and replaced with a new building in 1877, which is now the Randolph-Minor Annex.
According to one church history, the Deacon William Crane's "love for black men and women led to the establishment of a school for slaves made up [of] twenty young men. They met three evenings each week to learn reading, writing, arithmetic and the Bible." Lanberg believes the schoolhouse survived and has been ignored ever since.
Jodi Koste, head of special collections at VCU's Tompkins-McCaw Library, says she'd like to find out what information state historians may have in their archives. "This is a pretty big story," she says, "but we don't have all the pieces yet."
Although the building is not immediately threatened, Jennie Dotts, executive director of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods (ACORN), says she's concerned about its chances for survival.
ACORN has clashed with MCV before over the toppling of old campus buildings. It's important to remember, Dotts says, that "the African-American hospital and nursing school and buildings associated with the quote-unquote colored population those buildings have all been demolished."
If the brick house is proved to have been a slave schoolhouse, Dotts envisions it becoming part of the Richmond Slave Trail. People could follow the trail from the slave pens at Lumpkins' Jail "the lowest point, really, in Richmond's history of trading humans" up to the church, she says, where many slaves and former slaves learned to become city leaders.
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