Plan hatched to save historic African-American site calls for moving it

The Charlotte Museum of History will lead a community effort to restore the historic Siloam School in northeast Charlotte and return it to its original purpose as an educational resource and community gathering space.
The Charlotte Museum of History will lead a community effort to restore the historic Siloam School in northeast Charlotte and return it to its original purpose as an educational resource and community gathering space. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission

A crumbling piece of Charlotte’s African-American history will be transformed into a community attraction under an ambitious, $600,000 plan being unveiled this week by preservationists and historians.

The Charlotte Museum of History, which is heading the project, intends to save and restore the historic Siloam Rosenwald School, a 1920s-era school for black children.

But first, the nearly century-old building must be moved more than 10 miles south of its original location near UNC Charlotte to the museum’s east Charlotte campus at 3500 Shamrock Drive. There, it will be restored as closely as possible to its original school house appearance, filled with exhibits on local African-American history and opened to the public for daily tours. (The move will happen in the middle of the night to avoid traffic.)

The museum intends to raise the money though community donations, including a GoFundMe page. A campaign kick-off has been set for March 25 at a special ticketed event.

Kay Peninger, head of the museum, realizes it may not be an easy sell to a community with countless social needs, but she says the school house is a monument to the city’s generosity. It was originally built through local donations, because public money was inadequate at the time for black schools

“A community approach built the school and we want a community approach in saving it,” Peninger said. “I think that’s a very meaningful part of the history of the building. It’s a spectacular achievement to think that in the Jim Crow era, when segregation was strong and legally mandated....the community came together for this, blacks and whites, to give money.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission has been trying for years to save the school, which was designated a county historic landmark in 2006 and put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. It now sits in the cross hairs of progress, near the campus of UNCC and on the back side of an apartment complex.

The apartments, as well as the old school, are owned by Tribute Companies, which asked the landmarks commission to find someone to take the building. Once it is moved, a historical marker will be placed at the old location to note the property’s original use.

“This history is too important to be lost,” said a statement from Mark Maynard Sr., president of Tribute Companies. “The school needs to be in the hands of preservation experts who can protect it from future development pressure and restore it for use as a community and educational resource.”

Tribute Companies is a partner on the school project, along with the landmarks commission, Aldersgate Retirement Community and the nonprofit Silver Star Community Inc., which worked to preserve a similar building on Torrence Church Grove Road in Charlotte.

The Siloam school is believed to be one of thousands of Rosenwald schools built throughout the South in the early 1900s, all to educate African Americans. The schools were the result of a philanthropic partnership between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Washington came up with the idea and Rosenwald provided part of the money, by offering to match funds raised by communities like Charlotte.

More than 5,000 schools were built in the South. North Carolina had more than any other state, with 813 Rosenwald schools, including 26 in Mecklenburg County. Of those 26, six to eight are still standing, including the Billingsville Rosenwald School. It recently reopened as a community center in Grier Heights.

The Siloam school will be the first in the county to be preserved and opened to the public for daily tours. Thousands of people visit the museum each year, many of them children on field trips. Museum officials believe the building and its exhibitions will help provide attention to the region’s often ignored African-American history.

In years past, the museum focused largely on European migration to the region, aided by the historic Hezekiah Alexander House on the campus grounds. The house was built around 1774.

“We want our history museum to tell as many of the community’s stories as we can,” said museum trustee Mary Newsom. “The Rosenwald story is one of determination, courage and optimism on the part of African American residents, and we hope we can keep it alive for future generations.”

How to help

The museum will host a special event at 5 p.m. Mar. 25, at its 3500 Shamrock Drive campus to kick off the Save Siloam School project. All proceeds will benefit the restoration and preservation of the school. The event will feature author and journalist Stephanie Deutsch speaking about the Rosenwald School movement, and it will honor Ron Carter of Johnson C. Smith University and the late Dr. George Davis and Marie G. Davis. Tickets are $25 each and can be purchased at charlottemuseum.org under the events tab (http://charlottemuseum.org/tc-events/).

You can make a tax deductible donation to the Save Siloam School project by sending a check to The Charlotte Museum of History at 3500 Shamrock Drive, Charlotte, NC, 28215. Write Save Siloam School in the memo line. Call 704-568-1774 or email info@charlottemuseum.org for more information.