Kijana Wiseman inherited two acres of land off FM 2821 when her mother passed away in 2014. This land was purchased by her relatives John Wesley Wilson and his wife Amarintha Kittrell Wilson in 1915 from Sally Gibbs for the purpose of erecting a school to educate their grandchildren and others in their community.
Around the same time that Samuel Walker Houston was establishing the Industrial and Training Institute on Hwy 30, the Wilson and Kittrell families followed the same criteria to secure grant money from The Rosenwald Fund. In 1920, the Wilsons deeded the land to the Huntsville Independent School District, establishing a primary school that became a hub of community activities and gatherings for the Black residents of Walker County.
The Rosenwald Fund was created by Jewish businessman Julius Rosenwald. Between 1917 and 1948, the fund contributed $70 million to various schools, museums, Jewish charities and Black Institutions. The result was 5,357 schools across 15 southern states. Because of the dedication and hard work of Black leaders and residents, Huntsville is still a place committed to education.
“Mother told me once that if Rosenwald school had not been erected, she is positive that she and her fellow students would have never achieved their dreams. She felt that the Rosenwald School was a gift to her from God. When my late brother became terminally ill, to help him with expenses, Mother sold all of her Huntsville land to our cousin. Everything except her two Rosenwald acres. It’s sacred ground,” said Wiseman.
Wiseman’s mother, Mary Helen Wilson Wiseman not only received her primary school education at Rosenwald but came back and taught there before moving to Houston to earn her Master’s Degree. The Mary Helen Wiseman library was named after her in honor of her contributions as an educator and a five time “Teacher of the Year” award winner in the Houston Independent School District.
Growing up, Wiseman’s mother always brought her to visit the graves of her family members at the nearby Wilson-Kittrell Cemetery. Wiseman has many fond memories of visiting her grandfather on the same land she now tends today. When she arrived in Huntsville to assess the site just two years ago, she began clearing the land for use and is now one of the caretakers of the family cemetery, refurbishing gravesites and replacing markers.
Wiseman has always been a cultural groundbreaker in the Houston community and abroad. She was actually born in Nuevo Laredo, even though her birth certificate states her birth took place at Mercy Hospital in Texas. Her mother was not able to teach public school while visibly pregnant, but she was able to find work in the Latino community near Laredo while her father was serving in the Korean War.
With an IQ of 172, Wiseman began taking classes at Rice University at the age of 15 while simultaneously attending Kashmere High School. She was often teased for being smart, so only her teachers and one close friend knew that she was taking the bus to Rice every week.
She studied Latin, representing the school at area debates and was the soprano soloist for an all girls choir, well known for her rendition of “Ave Maria”. Wiseman was so adept at reassembling skeletons and performing science experiments that she received a scholarship from the Natural Science Foundation.
Wiseman set her sights on a pre med degree at Houston Baptist College. She befriended the white daughter of a local pastor, and became the first Black member of the First Baptist Church in Houston.
“It never occurred to me that I wasn’t allowed to go in, and I took my friends with me,” said Wiseman. Some members were hostile toward her and accused her of splitting up the church when the pastor stood up for her. The poor treatment she received from certain professors in college and her first experience as an intern changed her mind about her future.
She transferred to the University of Houston to study theater. She’d already earned enough credits for a bachelor’s degree in science, so she pursued a degree in Fine Arts and also learned Swahili. She was asked to serve as an interpreter for a visiting Ugandan man who offered her a government job in Africa, but her mother would not allow her to travel overseas.
The following year she was hired to teach abroad by the Peace Corps and accepted a job in Liberia. When her plane stopped for a layover in Portugal, she took a detour through Spain and France before reporting to her post in Koto-ta. After a month she reassigned herself to the cultural center as the new instructor of theater and English.
After two years, she broke off as an independent and began performing publicly for a television show called “Under the Palm Tree”. Wiseman starred in commercials and wrote plays while teaching drama at the local American school. She also learned the xhosa language from South African music icon Miriam Makeba.
By the end of her sixth year in Liberia in 1979, civil unrest over a price increase on imported rice spurred riots and looting. Wiseman fled to Europe for five months before heading back to the U.S. for a modeling job. Upon arrival at the agency that had promised her a job, she was turned away for the color of her skin.
She established her own creative production firm, which wound up sharing a marketing campaign for Houston Metro a decade later with the very same company that had discriminated against her. Wiseman directed a series of very successful commercials, capturing a large portion of radio, television and newspaper advertising.
Wiseman used that platform to connect Black newspapers such as the Informer, the Defender and the Houston Sun to assist The Woodlands Corporation in welcoming Black citizens into the area at a time when Conroe still had racist messaging on highway billboards. She also served five years as a chairperson for Friends of Emancipation Park in Houston.
Wiseman refers to herself as a griot, which is a West African term for traveling poets, musicians and storytellers who maintain their oral history. Last year, Wiseman created an annual Earth Day called “Return to Our Roots” to honor her family and the land. She was part of the live performance, sharing stories of her travels and singing original songs and African folk music. This year, the Earth Day celebration will be held from noon to 7 p.m. on April 22, featuring oldies music with returning guests La Juan Law and the Superbad Band. The event is free to the public and area vendors are encouraged to come and sell their wares. Overnight camping spots are also available for those who want to fully experience this historical location.
Wiseman and her husband Aundra Fusilier split their time between Rosenwald and their home in Houston. She calls Rosenwald her creative space, opening up the venue to Huntsville’s first renaissance fair just a few weeks ago.
Wiseman has future plans for projects and events, including the construction of solar powered casitas to provide low impact accommodations. Wiseman recently engineered a system for providing clean water by capturing moisture from the air and purifying it with a Berkey water filter, producing gallons per day in high humidity. Her ability to combine modern technology with ancient practices is just one of many ways she sets an example of how to use what she has learned and inherited for the benefit of this community.
“I decided a long time ago that I’m not a minority,” said Wiseman. “I’m a minor rarity.”
Rosenwald Acres is located at 639 Rosenwall Road. For more information about its history and upcoming events, visit their site at https://rosenwaldacres.com/.
Sorry, there are no recent results for popular commented articles.