Under the power of an angle grinder, the copper box that had rested beneath the old Milledge Elementary School for 41 years split open – and memories poured out.
There was the roster of Alice Butler’s third-grade class with each pupil’s scratchy signature; a Feb. 15, 1971, Augusta Herald with the headline “Secret CIA base in Laos reported bombed by mistake”; even a pamphlet titled “Successful Defense Against Communist Domination.”
On Friday, members of Webb Lodge No. 166 of the Free and Accepted Masons opened the time capsule that the organization buried years ago. The act was nostalgic, but it also hinted to new beginnings.
With construction on the new Lamar-Milledge Elementary School completed in the summer, the resurrection of the time capsule also represented hope the historic school with new walls will bring a needed revitalization to Harrisburg, said people taking part.
“It’s our first year back at the site, so everyone is proud,” Principal Raye Robinson said. “This school is the heart of Harrisburg. Even with all the crime that happens in this area, this school is a haven for us.”
The capsule was placed beneath a monument on the Eve Street side of the school four decades ago, three years after the original building was torn down and construction on a new school began.
When that school was demolished in 2010, the capsule was moved to a monument at the front, which Richmond County Board of Education workers carefully sawed through to pull out the capsule Friday.
“I never thought I’d live to see it open again,” said Walter O. Suber, 82, who was the chapter’s worshipful master in 1971 and buried the capsule.
While Webb Lodge members studied the rule books and history books that came out of the capsule, some Milledge Elementary alumni reminisced about the time when the box was planted.
Back then, crime was rare. Businesses lined Crawford Avenue, and the neighborhood had family-owned homes instead of rentals.
This year, however, the neighborhood had more than 20 gun crimes, and Lamar-Milledge had a school lockdown this fall because of gunfire.
In early November, community activists cut down a tree known to be a meeting place for drug deals and spray-painted “GOT COPS,” an acronym for “Get out of town; citizens on patrol surveillance” over gang graffiti.
Activist Butch Palmer, who was a fourth-grader at Milledge when the capsule was buried, said the neighborhood is working to get back to the time when Harrisburg had safe streets and a miniature business district.
“It was entirely safe, it was an entity, a sense of community back then,” Palmer said. “It was a village … Now we have an opportunity for revitalization. It’s hoped we’ll return to people living in walking distance to the school and that people will buy homes and invest here instead of renting here.”
Sheriff-elect Richard Roundtree said Lamar-Milledge will play a key role with his community policing efforts. During his campaign, which ended with his election as sheriff Nov. 6, Roundtree coordinated with school district officials to talk about ways the school could become a nucleus in the neighborhood and deter crime.
Roundtree plans to help launch GED classes, continuing education and alternative learning programs for adults at the school.
“It has to become not only a school but a resource,” Roundtree said. “It has to be something everybody can take ownership in. You got the people in the neighborhood, now we just got to go out and make them our allies. Once the criminal element sees we’re taking a vested interest, you’ll start to see that neighborhood start to thrive again.”
Robinson said churches have strengthened their partnerships with the school this year. Volunteers from Bethel AME Church, which borders the school, began tutoring fifth-grade boys twice a week in November and plan to mentor them through middle school. Other neighborhood churches have also donated clothes, shoes and Christmas gifts to children in need.
Although she has been the school’s principal for six years, Robinson said this feels like a new beginning: “Overall, what I’ve seen is a great stride in pride. People take care of what belongs to them, and people are happy and excited to have a brand-new school.”