First set of Bruce Street School engagement sessions conclude

Officials from Arabia Mountain Heritage Area Alliance (AMHAA) and Martin Rickles Studio hosted their second community engagement meeting at the Bruce Street School Ruins in Lithonia Dec. 12.

AMHAA officials said the event was designed to gather community feedback and direct the historic preservation of DeKalb County’s first Black public school building, known as the Bruce Street School. The event was led by Martin Rickles Studio—an Atlanta-based interdisciplinary design studio, staff members from Arabia Mountain Heritage Area Alliance, and volunteers.

“We’re trying to work with people who are familiar with the school building itself to help us piece together the campus, what the rooms were like inside, and what the color was in there, to really learn the history,” said Martin Rickles Architect Amy Landesberg. “We’ve had descents of alumna and alumna who have a strong sense of attachment and value of the building. We’re hearing a lot about people wanting it preserved and brought back to life.”

At the event, attendees were asked to visit four different stations around the ruins. The stations were designed to collect information on memories about the school’s past and what the community wants for the future of the site.

Stations included a drawing area where attendees would draw what they remember of the inside of the school, a station recording attendees’ memories of the school, a station recording what attendees hope to see from the school, and an oral interview station.

Attendees were also asked to take clay imprints of the walls, to write and talk about what they want to see, view the inside of the ruins, and participate in other activities. AMHAA Executive Director Revonda Cosby said the event was an example of why Martin Rickles Studio is right for the job.

“One of the things that stood out was the work they’ve done in the past and the diversity of the team they brought to this project,” said Cosby. “I’ve done many designs where … you put stickies all over the wall, and then you leave and hope that’s what it is. This isn’t that. These are stories a little deeper than a sticky. These stories cross lines of human rights, access to better education, equality. Martin Rickles is that. They seek to be engaged and learn the details. You have to learn the stories, and that’s what led our team to choose them.”

Cosby said one of the themes emerging from the engagement sessions is the community’s desire for the space to be interactive.

“The community wants it to be an engaging space. Not just where we stare and remember, but where we can do something else while we’re here,” said Cosby. “What I do recognize is that the seniors on Bruce Street want to be part of the process … they’re so excited. It’s a story about community, not just education.”

According to Cosby, several Bruce Street School alumni also attended the event.

“I think what has helped the most is the authenticity of the memories. Ms. Ida Hawk worked in the cafeteria for years. Not a single person who has come here has not remembered her, and today [Hawk] came out,” added Cosby.

Cosby said design team officials also want to display more than the education-based history of the site. Cosby said the school site hosted weddings, community meetings, and other events.

“It is more than just the toughness of education in the Jim Crow South; the sense of community that this school was everything. It was more than just a grammar school. Days like today remind me that feeling wasn’t lost,” said Cosby.

Several event hosts talked about the stories they heard from alumni influencing their thoughts about the site. Floor plans and memories from alumni added perspectives that no one else held, according to Cosby and others in attendance.

Staff members said creating concepts and plans for the school would be done later. The first two engagement sessions were used to collect information about what the community wants to see as a guide for the creation of concepts.

“These first two sessions were about what we called inventory and analysis,” said Carley Rickles. “They’re all about collecting information. Moving forward, our next sessions will be about starting to better understand what this place could be and get to get feedback. After this, we’ll be starting to analyze the information we’ve gotten and share presence of other relative projects.”

The first two community engagement sessions were held in person, but AMHAA officials said future sessions—which officials plan to host monthly in 2022—will feature a virtual component for those who are unable to physically attend.

Anyone with artifacts related to the Bruce Street School, including photos, records, yearbooks, and stories to use in potential exhibits, is encouraged to join the community engagement sessions.

This project is a collaboration between the city of Lithonia, DeKalb County, and the Arabia Mountain Heritage Area Alliance. Funding has been provided by DeKalb County District 5 Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson.


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