Dunbar schoolhouse marks centennial with launch of health hub

Contributed by Beth Sherk

Pharmacist Justin Vesser gives Covid-19 Vaccine booster to Carmen Smith during Dunbar Schoolhouse’s first free health fair.

The Dunbar Schoolhouse on Mountain Hill Road in Palmyra – originally built to educate Black children only – celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Though segregated education is not a topic to be rejoiced, the survival of this historical building certainly is. Fluvanna County native Carmen Smith bought the site recently with plans to create a community center. On Feb. 24  she collaborated with another Fluvanna County native, Greg Winston, to hold the old schoolhouse’s first health fair.

The Dunbar Schoolhouse was left to deteriorate until Carmen Smith recently came onto the scene. Under her leadership, this two-room schoolhouse is becoming a museum, community center, and health hub for children and elderly folks in southernmost Fluvanna where health statistics are alarmingly low. “I was shocked to see just how disproportionate major health concerns are in this area in comparison to the rest of the county,” said Greg Winston, hospital administrator and co-chair of the Move 2 Health Equity Coalition. Having grown up in Fluvanna, he cared, offering his expertise to make Smith’s dream of a health hub come true.

In January, he convened the coalition’s monthly meeting at Dunbar with nearly 30 representatives from health-oriented organizations, including UVA and Martha Jefferson, to discuss problems and solutions. Access to healthcare due to lack of transportation was top of the list. For a community where many elderly must rely on the JAUNT bus to get them to appointments, funding cuts to the midday run have meant arduous days, lasting from early morning to late afternoon. Discussion centered on bringing health care to them by making Dunbar a site for mobile clinics and Telehealth, services not currently offered by county senior centers. Another problem discussed while huddling in front of portable heaters was the lack of heating and air at Dunbar. Not much would be accomplished without it.

Nevertheless, Feb. 24 marked the building’s first health fair. This time, the building was cozy and warm, with the new HVAC system Smith had just installed with her own savings. A friendly and inviting atmosphere prevailed, with vaccinations and blood pressure readings offered in one room, and acupuncture and back massages in another, all for free. The main room was lined with information tables for various public health service providers hawking their wares along with plenty of healthy snacks, too.   

It was a beautiful way to kick off Dunbar’s centennial. Over 5,000 such schools, known as Rosenwald Schools, were designed at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and partially financed by Julius Rosenwald, an empathetic Jewish immigrant who’d made millions off the Sears Roebuck catalog. Originally called the Fork Church School, it was later renamed to honor Paul Laurence Dunbar, a nationally known black poet, novelist, and playwright. According to the Rosenwald Foundation database, the school cost $2,600 with county funds contributing $1,400, the Black community giving $500, and the foundation gifting $700. A generation of students still living in Fluvanna County have high regard and fond memories of their Rosenwald school days. Six of these schools were built in our county. Four remain intact today, and structurally, Dunbar is still amazingly sound but definitely needs work.

Being privately owned, the Dunbar Schoolhouse didn’t qualify for county funds to renovate but now that Smith’s endeavor has a not-for-profit 501 C-3 status, she is poised to get grant money. “People who stand still get left behind.” is the credo of this self-made woman who started out baking wedding cakes and hammering nails in a factory for five bucks an hour. When free courses were offered, she seized the opportunity at age 40, returning to school to earn an engineering degree and a job at Northrop Grumman. Now in keeping with her philosophy of ‘git her done’, she’s been using her own money to make needed improvements to the old school building, such as installing drywall and new windows, refinishing floors, and now the HVAC system. A new roof is also further down the wish list.

Beneath her glow of enthusiasm, Smith is a change-maker. She offers youth programs at the schoolhouse in math, science, and engineering, and seeing the elderly’s struggles, she seeks to smooth their path as well. Having grown up with a mother whose house was filled with neighborhood kids, community is in Smith’s blood.  “We take care of our own,” she likes to say. She dreams of such things as a multi-purpose basketball/tennis court, walking trails, and a picnic shelter on Dunbar grounds. To make this happen, Carmen needs significant funding, yet shies away from taking historical status. While she wants to preserve the Dunbar Schoolhouse, she also wants the freedom to make practical changes to achieve a working community space.

The current class of Fluvanna’s Leadership Development Program has taken note and wants to give her a financial boost with a business plan and communication tools that will in turn help her solicit grant money. The group encourages everyone in Fluvanna County to get involved. If picking up a paintbrush isn’t in the cards, a monetary donation would certainly go a long way. 

Want to help? Mail a donation to Friends of Dunbar 2524 Mountain Hill Rd. Palmyra, VA 22963, or like the Dunbar Schoolhouse Facebook page to stay updated about upcoming events. 

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