CAMBRIDGE – Barbara Ennels Lake stood in the chilly one-room schoolhouse, looking beyond the buckets and tools that crowd the room now to a past when she learned to read and write.
The small wooden table in the back appears to be just another antique, but for those who were schooled at the Stanley Institute, it was much more — it was the library.
An old pot-belly stove in the middle of the room is where children huddled in the winter. An iron bell sits on the teacher’s desk and in the corner are an old bucket and dipper that were used to get water before there was plumbing.
What appears now to be just a shabby old one-room shack is a symbol of pride to Lake and the people in the Christ Rock community, and something they think is worth preserving as an African-American museum.
“It doesn’t look much like anything now, but it’s a special place to us,” Lake said of the Stanley Institute, an all-black school before desegregation and one of the Eastern Shore’s oldest remaining one-room schoolhouses.
“It is the first community-owned school in Dorchester County,” she said. “The school belonged to the community, a very close-knit group of people, mostly relatives who have ties that spring from that church.”
The little red building — 30 feet long and 24 feet wide — is two miles southwest of Cambridge, across Route 16 from the Christ Rock United Methodist Church. Its sinking stairs and sagging roof have been around since 1865. The wooden floors are weak now and covered with dirt.
It doubled as a church and school more than 100 years ago. They say Ezekial Stanley and Moses Opher moved the school, also called the “Rock School,” from Church Creek in 1867.
“Folks wanted the school to have an elaborate name,” Lake said, so they named it in honor of Stanley, a wealthy ex-slave who bought the land shortly after slavery was abolished.
In 1875, records show, about 85 freed blacks studied at the school in grades one through seven. When the school finally closed its doors in 1962, students went through sixth grade.
When Victoria Johnson Tilghman came to teach at the Stanley Institute, “there was no plumbing in the school, that came later. And of course there were no overhead projectors because we had no electricity. But students learned there just the same.”
Tilghman, 78, who now lives in Bridgeville, Del., was paid $1,800 a year to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, along with art and music. She said the small community valued schooling and wanted to make sure that its children got an education.
“I was only there a short time,” said Tilghman, who remembered working with Ennels and other parents in the 1940s. “We had a good relationship with the community.”
Another former teacher, Janet Commodore, agreed that the school was the heart of the community, and vice versa.
“I did not know much of the school’s history when I taught there, but like most schools in rural areas and in black communities, the school was an important part of the community,” Commodore said.
“I remember the community was easy to work with. It was just a few families, but they always found ways to keep their children in school,” said Commodore, who lives in Salisbury.
The parents formed an active PTA that finally got electricity for school in 1949, Commodore said. In 1966, after the school had been closed, the PTA transformed itself into the Rock Community Improvement League.
The league and a former teacher, the late William H. Kiah, fought to get the school listed on the National Register of Historic Sites in 1975.
Today, an organization of former students and residents of the Christ Rock community is working to preserve the original school structure. The group, calling itself Friends of Stanley Institute, eventually hopes to turn the school into a local museum of African-American history.
Lake said that backers want the school to look exactly like it used to look. While it will be set up like a classroom, it will also house displays on local folk and their accomplishments.
The group is collecting furniture and memorabilia of the period from 1867 to 1962, when the school operated, and it hopes to began renovating the building within the year.
“People can learn a lot about how things used to be,” said Lake, who said the idea behind the restoration and museum is to share a small part of African-American history as it relates to the former students and the community.
Their hopes took a step forward in 1981, when the Cambridge Department of Public Works gave the site an official address. Group members recently applied for grants from the state and the Maryland Historical Trust to spruce up the building.
But meanwhile, Lake and others are relying on Stanley Institute alumni, family and friends to help with the project. For families who lived in the area, the Stanley Institute harbors lots of memories, as well as a part of the town’s history.
“On Friday, we would sweep the floor clean before we went home,” Lake recalls. “Then fathers would come in and polish it.”
Lake’s mother, Estella Ennels, 87, first heard of the school when she moved to Christ Rock in 1929. She wound up sending all six of her daughters to the school.
“We have always believed that education is important,” Ennels said.
She has fond memories of the children marching in school parades, competing in sports on Field Day, attending magic shows and going to box socials, where “folks would put whatever they wanted” in a box to be auctioned off.
Ennels also remembers that black children had to pass by many white schools in their own communities of Church Creek, Madison, Oldfield and Harrisville to attend the “Rock School.”
“The bus used to let the children out in front of this house,” Ennels said. “The children would come in and get warm, if I had some bread or something I would feed them, but they all came through this house.”
Lake smiled as she spoke of checking books in and out at the “library” table. She remembered three old slate chalk boards hanging there, but now only one remains.
It is possible that their school resembled other one-room schoolhouses, but no one at Christ Rock knew because Stanley Institute was the only one they had seen, Lake said.
“The school is important to us for a lot of reasons,” Lake said. “Many people got their starts right in that little red schoolhouse.”