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Officials want Dorchester's importance recognized
Rally Saturday aims to get site listed as endangered
Martin Luther King Jr. stayed in this dorm room at Dorchester Academy when he visited the site in the 1960s before the march in Birmingham. Officials and community members hope to be awarded funds to renovate the academy's boys dormitory, which is the main building still standing. - photo by Phgoto by Patty Leon


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Academy served civil rights movement

In addition to being the only school for local black students until it closed in the early 1940s, Dorchester Academy also served as an assembly place for voter education and demonstration planning during the Civil Rights movement.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists planned the historic 1963 March on Birmingham during a stay at Dorchester Academy.
Debra Robinson, curator at the Dorchester museum, actually got King’s autograph during one of his visits.
“There was no confusion about it,” she said. “You just knew that Dr. King was here … and if you wanted to see him, you came up here.”
Robinson said King chose Dorchester because of its dual lodging and schooling accommodations.
“On the weekend, you would see buses coming in from Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi,” she said. “And these people would come in and they were taught how to vote.”

With the first black president-elect waiting to move into the oval office, the Civil Rights movement and its history are naturally on the minds of Americans and in the national spotlight.
In an effort to preserve some of Liberty County’s own civil rights history, Cindye Jones, director of Liberty County Convention and Business Bureau, put Dorchester Academy in consideration to become one of the 11 most endangered historic places in America. The National Trust for Historic Preservation will chose the top sites and give each one money for restoration.
Jones said saving Dorchester Academy is important to both the civil rights movement and Liberty County’s history because local historians say the academy was, among many things, a school that taught citizenship classes to freed slaves, and a place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters spent time preparing for the 1963 Birmingham march.
 “There are pictures of him running around with kids in front of the building,” Jones said about snapshots of King circulating in the community.
In order to earn a slot in the top 11 and receive the money, the community has to prove Dorchester Academy has significant meaning to them, which is the slogan for a rally being held to raise support for the project. Jones is asking residents to attend a “This Place Matters” rally Saturday, which will feature speakers, including Riceboro Mayor Bill Austin, as well as a photo opportunity for the community to display its pride and support. The photograph will be submitted with the application for the restoration.
Although the board of directors recently has made repairs to the building, Austin, who also is president of the board, said there are three major problems that still need immediate attention: the foundation, asbestos in the roof and the floors.
“It’s vitally important,” said Austin, who added that due to the recent presidential race, the history of the building is particularly relevant. “We’ve been struggling for years to save the historic structure.”
Jones agreed that the building needs immediate improvements and said if that doesn’t happen soon, irreparable damage is definitely possible.
“The roof is in such horrible condition and it’s causing structural damage. It could be condemned. It’s such a shame,” Jones said. “We really need the support of the whole community.”
Jones also said she’s excited because the project recently got two political heavyweights on its side. She confirmed Sen. Jack Kingston and former President Jimmy Carter will be writing letters of recommendation supporting the restoration of the academy.
But more than anything, both Jones and Austin said they need the support of their community. They said they’re counting on residents to come out to the rally Saturday and show the judges this is a community-supported project.
“We need to begin the process of planning and positioning ourselves to get the award,” Austin said. 
The rally is at 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday at Dorchester Academy, 8787 E. Oglethorpe Highway, Midway.
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