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Department Head Kevin Oliver, Associate Professor Angela Wiseman Help Preserve Historic Russell School Through Virtual Tour, Alumni Interviews

TELS Department Head Kevin Oliver conducts interviews as part of a virtual tour to preserve the Historic Russell School.

In the early 1900s, more than 800 Rosenwald Schools – schools for Black students built through philanthropic donations and funds raised by activists – were built in North Carolina. This number was, by far, more than any other state, however only a few of these school buildings still exist today. 

To preserve their history, Kevin Oliver, head of the Department of Teacher Education and Learning Sciences in the NC State College of Education, and Associate Professor Angela Wiseman, have created a virtual tour of the Historic Russell School, which is the last Rosenwald School remaining in Durham County. 

“It was fascinating to learn about the larger Rosenwald School philanthropy program that provided partial funding, with community input, to build schools for Black children across 15 states starting in the 1910s and with some schools providing services until desegregation in the 1960s,” Oliver said. “This isn’t a story that gets told in America, but its importance to thousands of students was clear early on and really motivated us to work on the project and bring the story forward.” 

Using a DELTA virtual tours grant—which was designed to enable NC State faculty to create immersive virtual tours of laboratories, classrooms and learning environments—Oliver and Wiseman, along with DELTA staff, visited the Russell School to capture a series of 360 images used to create the virtual tour using a platform called Matterport. They then worked with the Friends of the Russell School board to determine which facts and details about the school were most important to include on the virtual tour. 

As part of this process, Oliver and Wiseman had the opportunity to interview three alumni of the school, who shared first-hand accounts of the curriculum they learned, their average school-day experiences and even their recess activities. 

These alumni, Oliver said, became the “stars of the show,” adding an emotional voice to an historic account and an encouraging message to today’s students to take advantage of all of the educational opportunities that were not available several decades ago. 

“It was moving to hear them discuss what the school had meant to them to be able to get an education when that wasn’t such an easy thing to do,” Oliver said. “Where they could have expressed bitterness toward the inequities and segregation they faced, they instead expressed joy at the opportunity given to them by the Rosenwald Schools program and appreciation for the foundation laid by the school to get jobs in diverse fields like construction and nursing.” 

With the virtual tour alongside more than two hours of interview footage collected from alumni, as well as Friends of the Russell School board and community members, Oliver hopes that the project can extend the school’s educational outreach beyond Durham as well as enhance the learning experience for North Carolina students who visit the school during field trips. 
You can view the full virtual tour here.