Remembering the best of times and the worst of times
History runs deep in the halls of G.W. Carver Elementary School.
Marylen Harmon, who attended the school when it was simply known as Carver, said though the interior has changed over the years, every time she walks through the doors, she is taken back to the best, but most challenging, years of her life.
“When I come back into the building, it’s the blood flow and I’m back home,” Harmon said. “You can hear the concerts and see us out stomping on the bleachers.”
Carver, which opened its doors on Sept. 12, 1940, was the area’s lone African American school until 1966 when the school system began to integrate. At the time of construction in 1939, the school only cost $135,000 to build.
Harmon, along with Salem City Communications Director Mike Stevens, has worked diligently over the last five years to preserve history and memories from the Carver years.
A 66-minute documentary, the running time an homage to the school’s final year, will be screened in the G.W. Carver gymnasium on Monday, Feb. 29 at 6:30 p.m., with the school’s G.W. Carver Museum opening at 6 p.m.
Work on the documentary, entitled “The Carver Project,” began in 2011 after Superintendent Dr. Alan Seibert and Salem Assistant City Manger Jay Taliaferro attended the school’s reunion and reached out to Stevens with the idea.
Stevens and Harmon strived to capture the essence of the school, which had just under 500 students at one point, and was managed by one principal, one assistant principal, 24 teachers, three custodians, one secretary/bookkeeper and just two cafeteria employees.
“We touch on the family aspect and the discipline in the school,” Stevens said. “You did not play around in this school.”
Harmon was uniquely qualified for the undertaking. Not only did she attend all 12 years of schooling at Carver, but her mother, Lucy Martin Harmon, taught at the school, and her father, Chauncey Depew Harmon Sr., served as principal.
She was responsible for digging up old photos, many of which had been left for trash, as well as helping set up interviews. She also served as the historian, providing research materials for the project.
Harmon said she remembers being in a first grade classroom with 75 other students. She remembers selling candy to raise money for school supplies, and never having a full textbook, because students had to wait until Andrew Lewis students were finished with the books. She said she and her friends would get bits and pieces and call each other after school to finish assignments.
Even with everything that could have easily been viewed as a disadvantage, Harmon said students were expected by parents and the neighborhood to thrive. And they did. The school was certified in athletics, academics and the arts.
Stevens wrote, produced, videotaped and edited the film. Over the course of five years, he conducted around 25 interviews with teachers, parents, students and coaches from all eras of the school. He said many of the individuals interviewed in the film have since passed away, including Harmon’s mother, who passed away in 2013.
“The beauty is the comments will never be gone,” Stevens said. “Their comments are just so far reaching and so poignant.”
When schools began to integrate in 1966, Stevens said he has learned it wasn’t a “kumbaya moment.” Harmon agreed, adding that it was a gain, but also a huge loss for the black community that wasn’t easily accepted into the new school system.
“When integration hit, being thrust into a new school that was predominantly white was difficult for students and teachers,” Harmon said. “There are some who are still upset that they didn’t get to finish school at Carver.”
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the school.
“It’s the rebirth. We don’t want the legacy to die,” Stevens said. “We’ve gone from trash to treasure, and this treasure is now being documented.”
After integration, for a while the name was changed to Salem Intermediate School, before becoming G.W. Carver.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Harmon said. “And it wasn’t an easy time.”
Stevens and Harmon are hoping for a packed gym on Monday night, and invite the Salem community to show their support.
“We’ve got some stuff that is going to make people laugh and some stuff that is going make people cry,” Stevens said.