"This tribute to Cullen Chambers was printed in the Savannah Morning News and on-line at Headlines + Happpenings (The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, January 23, 2014) and Preservation Posts (January 2014, Historic Preservation DIvision, Georgia Department of Natural Resources)."
In front of the school -- Cullen in hazmat suit on right,
Ron Upshaw center, and Ellen Harris left.
“I let the building talk to me,” Cullen Chambers said as he pulled on his white “hazmat” suit and prepared to go under the historic schoolhouse. Everyone – most of whom had never been inside the building -- had said the old schoolhouse was “beyond repair.” At the eleventh hour I had requested an opportunity to get a second opinion. Cullen Chambers was the one all my historic preservation friends said to call. “He is the one who goes under the structure,” they said.
Many of the decision makers and most of the local nay-sayers had seen the wooden structure under the overgrown vines from the street. Most of them had never been inside the historic structure. Now we stood in the bright February morning and we waited for the second --- and final -- opinion on the fate of this historic building as Cullen and his team crawled inside, outside, and under. When Cullen emerged, he did not look me in the eye. He simply said, I will tell everyone together at the lunch meeting. I thought, well, okay, this is going to be a very brief project.
What he told the representatives of the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition (SSAAHC), the St. Simons Land Trust, the Coastal Georgia Historical Society, and me, the new kid to the project – was what the building had told him. At nearly ninety years old, it was still “so solid it could float.” Indeed, termites and storm damage had attacked it, but the care, attention and craftsmanship of those African American tradesmen who had built it for the education of their children and grandchildren was still evident – and still holding – in the workmanship and materials they had used. Education meant freedom in the Gullah Geechee community. The community had kept and cared for their schoolhouse. Now it was our turn.
The original historic schoolhouse could be restored, reported Cullen and his Coastal Regional Commission Historic Preservation Task Force at a public meeting one month later. He would help us find the best people to do it. And he would advise us on what we needed to get the job done. But at that moment I knew that God had given us the right person to help us.
I had never met Cullen Chambers until he arrived on St. Simons Island on that brilliant clear winter morning. He was tough, straightforward, passionate yet extremely practical. Just what the island needed after several frustrating tries by the SSAAHC to save the old schoolhouse. The decision had already been made to take down the schoolhouse, and, as one local told me, “they are putting gas in the bulldozer as we speak” when we called Cullen. His assessment helped everyone take a step back and try one more time.
Four years have passed and we have stabilized the structure, put on a new roof, and rallied many supporters locally, regionally and nationally. Following Cullen’s wise counsel we have shared all our progress reports and activities on our website www.ssiheritagecoalition.org.
This Saturday, January 25, The Friends of Harrington School will hold its annual meeting at St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church on St. Simons Island, Georgia. The public is invited. (R.s.v.p. for the Gullah lunch at 912-634-3440 or email friends@ ssiheritagecoaltion.org.).
Our theme is “Coming Together” because that is what Cullen and his task force brought to St. Simons Island. By restoring this historic schoolhouse, we will bring together the history of our island and tell the story of the people who came as slaves but who stayed as freed families and who contributed so much to our island’s history.
Speakers at the annual meeting will include representatives from Glynn County, the new Coastal African American Historic Preservation Commission, the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau, the American Studies program at the College of Coastal Georgia, and the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. We will kick off our Phase II fundraising campaign to complete the restoration.
Cullen was a tight bundle of under control nervous energy when he arrived to give the public report in March 2010. He had not eaten that day. He knew a lot was riding on their report and on his presentation. Afterwards he told me “I am doing this for Mrs. Hunter. We must get this done before she dies.” Mrs. Isadora Hunter celebrated her 90th birthday last fall. She grew up in Harrington and still lives there close to the historic school she attended and the property she donated to Glynn County and the St. Simons Land Trust to save the schoolhouse. She loved school but she never had a chance to go past the 8th grade because her mother died and “she had to tend to her siblings.”
We will miss you, Cullen. You let the building talk to you, but you had the right way of talking to others and to us. We will miss your wise counsel and friendship. We will hold your place at the ribbon cutting when the restoration is completed. Thank you.
Patty Deveau. President
The Friends of Harrington School
January 22, 2014