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Protecting history: Group saves, maintains century-old schoolhouse

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By Stephanie Hornback

In the early 1980s, an important piece of Nelson County’s African-American history was in danger. And although its future is much more secure now, it isn’t entirely out of the woods.

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The Bowman-Cherry Center on South First Street, Bardstown, was one of the city’s first public schools for black children. It opened in 1905 as the Bardstown Colored Grade School and was used until 1923, when it was replaced with a larger building across the road — the Nelson County Training School, a “Rosenwald school,” named after a Chicago philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, who funded a program 1912-1932 to provide matching grants for new schools in the south.

Despite a widespread effort to preserve Rosenwald schools, many didn’t survive, including the Nelson County Training School. For a while, it looked like the Bardstown Colored Grade School would share the same fate. But then a local group got involved and transformed the school into the Bowman-Cherry Center, named for the school’s last teachers, Alice Belle Bowman, Jessie Cherry and Hattie Bowman Hansford.

The Save the Schoolhouse Committee, which eventually incorporated with the Nelson County Black Citizens Arts Council, formed and grew quickly, said Carrie Stivers, who got the effort off the ground. One of the founding members, Kathy Reed, applied for the first grant to the Kentucky Heritage Council. More grant awards followed, and the City of Bardstown also provided matching funds.

The building was restored to its original design as much as possible, Stivers said, and the Black Citizens Arts Council, which holds the deed for the property and is responsible for its upkeep, received awards from the city for beautification and the statewide Ida B. Willis Historic Preservation Award. One room in the building is a replica of an early 20th century classroom.

Since its restoration was finished in 1988, the building has been used for adult education classes, yoga and dancing classes, day care, etc., Stivers said.

“It’s really been a good thing for the city because it’s open to anyone,” Stivers said.

 It is now rented for events such as reunions and receptions, which helps the Black Citizens Arts Council maintain it. The council also has fundraisers, including a soul food buffet recently.

More help is needed, however. One side of the building is deteriorating, and the council needs more money to repair it.

“That’s why we’re working so hard,” Stivers said. “We want to preserve it.”

Members of the Black Citizens Arts Council also want to keep their group strong so they can continue promoting the arts in Nelson County. Since the group formed in 1981, it has brought in art exhibits with the Nazareth Arts for Life event, the Louisville Boys Choir, the Nutcracker Suite and more, Stivers said. It also organized a Black Appreciation Day in 1982, 1984 and 1987.

“The group was founded primarily to get the arts into the black community, particularly the young people, so that they would learn how to appreciate the arts, and also to showcase some of the artistic talent in the black community,” Reed said.

The council has 13 working members and more than 100 members overall, Stivers said. Membership is $5 per year. For information on joining the council or renting the Bowman-Cherry Center, call Stivers at (502) 348-0977.