The little town of Oxford is not necessarily known as a bedrock of activism. But this story about the saving of a building just might change your mind.
To most of us, the Oxford Community Center (OCC) is a place where you can take in a first-rate concert or theater production, listen to an enlightening guest speaker, attend yearly model boat shows and fine arts fairs, join monthly cars and coffee, exercise at daily classes, and so much more. But this place would not be such an indispensable part of the community were it not for the efforts of a group of people who would not allow the building to be torn down. But perhaps activists are not a name they would call themselves. They would more than likely say they were just neighbors.
To acknowledge this milestone, OCC will hold an all-out celebration at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, November 30. Festivities will include a video documentary premiere of how the building was saved from being torn down, told in the words of those who were there, who cared, and who passed on the torch to a newer generation of… neighbors.
Designed by renowned architect Henry Powell Hopkins, the building opened in 1928 as a high school. Ten years later, when high schoolers were transported to Easton, the Oxford School was converted to an elementary school and, in the late 1950s, became the first integrated school on the Eastern Shore. The school closed in 1971, and ten years of neglect later, a decision about its future was under discussion by the town commissioners.
At around the same time, a sister building by the same architect was torn down at Idlewild Park in Easton, and that action fired up the citizens of Oxford who realized their building was going to be demolished as well. “A lot of people who still live in Oxford today,” said Liza Ledford, OCC’s Executive Director, “have parents or grandparents who went to that school back into the 30s. The heart of the town, the heart of the memories of the generations, was stored up in those walls, and it motivated them to claim that building as theirs and not allow it to become just a historical reference piece.”
Forming the Save our School (S.O.S.) committee, this group of townspeople went door to door asking for signatures and monetary support. In 1982, less than a year after they started, an agreement was reached with the town and the county. The former schoolhouse became a community center, giving the town a place where townspeople and other local neighbors could meet to socialize, participate in educational or recreational activities, etc. Almost immediately, the Tred Avon Players found a home, as did a kid’s camp and various other groups who were able to make use of what the building could offer. And the Center grew.
In 2012 a new campaign was successfully launched to renovate and modernize the building. Then, a few years ago, as OCC began to plan a celebration of the 40th anniversary, Ledford came across some black foam cork boards containing pictures and the townspeople’s original petitions. It was laid out comparable to a PowerPoint slide presentation, and it told the story of the saving of the building. Ledford speculates it might have been part of a past celebration.
Nevertheless, it gave Ledford an idea. She applied for and won a grant from the Maryland Heritage Area Authority and the Stories of the Chesapeake to tell that story of the 1980s battle to save the building. “This incredible presentation was already laid out. It just needed a timeless format,” she said. And Ledford was the perfect person to make it happen. Before coming to OCC, she was part of the Hollywood film and entertainment business, working for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, Universal Pictures, and Sony Studios. She’s often said how working in the industry was about ‘selling an experience in a positive and moving way.’
To help her sell that experience, Ledford hired W Films, a company she’s worked with previously. “I knew I wanted to do the documentary,” she said, “and we started by interviewing some of the people highlighted in those black panels.” One conversation that stands out for Ledford involves a story about the five founding members of S.O.S. — Sue Jackson, Phillip Connor, Sidney Campen, Norman Harrington, and Doug Hanks, Jr. It was those five people who stood around a hot wood stove in an old boathouse in Oxford on a cold January day and gave birth to the committee that decided to put all of their energy and resources into saving a building slated for the wrecking ball.
Their efforts are celebrated in the documentary, as are some who had gone to that school, lived in Oxford at the time, or were connected in some way to the nostalgia surrounding the building. People like Ferne Banks who remembers growing up as an African American in Oxford and how she was more aware of racism when attending the Easton school. Even then, she explains, students saw each other as Oxford people first and protected and related to each other as neighbors.
Also interviewed are Fiona Foster and Jennifer Stanley, to whom the torch was passed and who, to this day, make sure the building remains active and, as Ledford says, “full of heart and warmth.” That torch is now in the hands of those associated with the Oxford Community Center of today, and like those before them, they are up to the challenge.
Written into the grant, besides the video, is a physical exhibit that will be displayed for an undetermined time at OCC. It will include a timeline and history of the building, correspondence and appeal letters to the commissioners, school yearbooks, photos, and other memorabilia. Some of the black panels that inspired Ledford to create this memorial will also be included.
“This exhibit,” she said, “will allow people to see the building as a character in transformation across all these years. And this character, this building, has a heartbeat. And the heartbeat is shown through what we all do now. So it’s a celebration of all these people who have stewarded it and cared for it passionately and made sure it remained as it is today, a welcoming place where people can meet, talk and share ideas.”
Ledford also hopes this celebration will allow OCC to become recognized as one of the landmarks of Oxford. “When you come to Oxford via the ferry or doing a walking tour with the museum, we wanted to put a stake in the ground and have people come to the Community Center. We want them to appreciate it not only as a piece of architecture but as an interesting part of the history of the Chesapeake, where people came together across color lines, across economic lines for a common goal. And how, to this day, the building they fought for continues to unite and bring togetherness and community. I just feel like that needs to be more emphasized these days.”
As robust and historic as this project is, there is still one item on Ledford’s to-do list. “I love those black panels; they’re just amazing. I only wish I could find out who made them. I hope they’ll come to the event.” Whether she gets her wish or not, the anniversary celebration will be a way to honor the structure’s illustrious past and bright future. It will be yet another gathering of neighbors, another festivity under the roof of this building known as Oxford Community Center.
OCC’s Anniversary Celebration on 11/30/2022 6-8 p.m. is free . For more information, please visit www.oxfordcc.org, or call 410-226-5904.
Val Cavalheri is a writer and photographer. She has written for various publications, including The Washington Post. Previously she served as the editor of several magazines, including Bliss and Virginia Woman. Although her camera is never far from her reach, Val retired her photography studio when she moved from Northern Virginia to the Eastern Shore a few years ago.. She and her husband, Wayne Gaiteri, have two children and one grandchild.