Historic school for blacks to be restored in Grier Heights

One of Charlotte’s most notoriously troubled neighborhoods will unveil plans Tuesday to restore and put back into use an 87-year-old schoolhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The largely forgotten Billingsville Rosenwald School, 3 miles southeast of uptown, is to be reborn in coming months as a community center for Grier Heights, a low-income neighborhood bound by Randolph, Wendover and Monroe roads that is itself going through a revival.

Built in 1927, the deteriorated building is one of 4,977 schools established at the turn of the 20th century to advance black education in 15 Southern states. American clothier, Sears executive and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald provided most of the money, and experts say North Carolina got the lion’s share: 813 schools.

Only 10 to 12 percent of the 4,977 still survive, prompting the National Register to put them near the top of the country’s most endangered places. Of the 28 or so built in Mecklenburg County, it’s estimated nine or 10 remain, according to local historians.

Word of the $600,000 Grier Heights project is already winning praise from local preservationists as well as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which calls the school “an important piece of our shared national heritage.”

CrossRoads Corp., a nonprofit based in Grier Heights, has already raised $425,000 for the project, which it says should be finished by March.

“In a city that often tears down its old buildings, what’s happening in Grier Heights is inspirational,” said Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South.

“These Rosenwald Schools were not just schools. They were built as beacons of hope, and it’s amazing how communities coalesced around them. So it’s appropriate that this will be a tool for community building once again, in a revitalized neighborhood.”

Grier Heights is believed to be Charlotte’s oldest African-American neighborhood, having begun as a farming community in 1886 with four houses. However, an exodus of homeowners in the past 50 years led to economic decline and an increase in crime. Today, 87 percent of the homes are rentals and about 40 percent of the residents are under age 18. The dropout rate among students is roughly two times the local average, says CrossRoads.

A slow but steady upturn began more than a decade ago, when the congregation of Myers Park Presbyterian Church decided to help revitalize the area as part of a large-scale community outreach. That push resulted in CrossRoads, which is slowly replacing the most derelict houses with new, affordably priced homes for purchase.

Restoring the Rosenwald School into a community center and computer lab is part of that outreach.

Raising more money

CrossRoads is working to raise the final $175,000 needed for the project. The price tag also includes initial operations costs and salary for a part-time center director. Most of the $425,000 already raised came via grants from Snyder’s-Lance Inc., Wells Fargo and Myers Park Presbyterian.

Wells Fargo has given about $250,000 in recent years to various revitalization efforts in Grier Heights. The bank also has a specific interest in Rosenwald Schools and has contributed money to other Rosenwald projects in the South.

Rodrick Banks, a community development officer with Wells Fargo, says the bank sees the school renovations as equal parts historical preservation, community outreach and neighborhood development.

Longtime Grier Heights resident Gloria Bell-Green believes both the school and the neighborhood are worth saving because they represent a slice of Charlotte history that survived a century of dramatic change.

Bell-Green said she attended first through fourth grade in the school, which is now part of the campus of Billingsville Elementary. CrossRoads has secured a 15-year rent-free lease for the Rosenwald building from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

“You know, Rosenwald Schools are supposed to be wood, but this one is brick, because the men in neighborhood were proud of having a school and wanted a brick building,” said Bell-Green, giving credit specifically to a group of brick masons who lived in Grier Heights.

“I’ve been told the men managed to bring home a few bricks every day from work until they had enough to cover the school. That makes me appreciate every brick in that building.”

Allen Woodward, chairman-elect of the CrossRoads board, says the brick facade is one reason the building survived largely intact. It also helped that the school stayed vital as part of Billingsville Elementary.

For many, ‘it’s home’

During a recent visit, Woodward noted the wooden floors, tall windows, plaster ceilings and panel wainscoting on the walls are believed to be original. They will be restored and some modern additions will be removed, including exposed duct work.

One past improvement that will remain is an addition to the building that allowed the school to have indoor restrooms. However, Woodward said it will be retrofitted to look like the rest of the building.

Two potbelly stoves that cooked bean lunches for the pupils are no longer in place, but the smokestacks remain, and Bell-Green wonders if the stoves are in the basement. “There’s probably a lot of history lost down there.”

Jonathan Belton, who also attended classes in the building, is now the chairman of the Grier Heights Community Center board. He says the stoves were gone when he attended classes 45 years ago, but he recalls tales of boys being able to dodge assignments by volunteering to go out and hunt for firewood.

Belton has been working the past week to empty the building so work can begin next the first week of November. Most recently, the building served as a home for the defunct Grier Heights Economic Foundation.

“I’m a little embarrassed about how it looks now, but I imagine a time ahead when we’ll have art shows, dances, social affairs and classes here,” he says. “One of my earliest memories is coming here at 4 or 5 years old to a community meeting. This has long been a place where Grier Heights gathered. For a lot of us, it’s home.”