When Winchester Avenue School caught fire in 1966, it altered the course of desegregation in Monroe.
Now members of the Winchester Alumni Association want to make sure future generations remember that the school and its buffalo mascot played an important role in the city’s history – and not just because of the fire.
The association is hoping to install a statue of a buffalo on the grounds of the old school, where Monroe Parks and Recreation’s Winchester Center is now located.
“It’s important to keep our legacy alive,” said 1962 Winchester graduate Robert Heath, president of the alumni association.
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That goal becomes even more critical now, when the youngest alumni of the school are in their late 60s.
Winchester Avenue School opened in the 1920s to serve Monroe’s African-American students. In the 1930s, it was damaged by fire, but it was repaired and then continued to play an important role in the lives of its students, teachers and community.
George Miller, who graduated in 1958, said almost all of the school’s teachers lived in the community and knew the families of the children they taught.
Winchester’s students had to rely on used books that had been discarded by other schools. But many of them still thrived, going on to college and careers in education, politics, business and the arts. One of the most famous graduates was Robert Williams, a civil-rights leader and an author who graduated from Winchester Avenue High School in the early 1940s.
But the school did not bounce back from the fire that struck on March 21, 1966. Students finished out the year in undamaged areas of the school, but the fire marked the end of an era. Winchester would no longer serve high school students. They were reassigned to all-white Monroe High School.
“Monroe’s faculty and student body became the first totally integrated in the state due to the Winchester fire,” according to the Monroe High website.
Heath said the cause of the fire was “suspicious,” and that some people reported seeing a white man in a white car leaving the scene at about the time the fire broke out.
At the time of the fire, Frank McGuirt was a college student who sometimes took photos for local newspapers. His photographs of firefighters battling the raging Winchester blaze can be seen at the Union County Public Library in Monroe.
“I don’t think they ever determined what the cause (of the fire) was,” said McGuirt, a former Union County sheriff and member of the N.C. House of Representatives. He said it was generally thought, at the time, to have been intentionally set.
The 1966 fire may have been a critical moment for Winchester students and alumni, but “it does not define us,” said Heath’s wife, Lillie, who graduated in 1965. “We have that buffalo pride.”
That “buffalo pride” is driving the efforts to purchase and install the planned sculpture before the school’s all-class reunion in August. The four-day reunion will hopefully feature the unveiling of the buffalo, as well as a cookout, a formal ball and several other events.
Robert Heath said he got the idea for a statue after seeing Johnson C. Smith University’s bull statue at a sporting event. He posed the idea to other members of Winchester Alumni Association, and they liked the idea.
The association is trying to fund the project by selling bricks for $500 each that are imprinted with the name of a graduating class, individual or organization. Nine bricks have been purchased so far, Heath said, and he expects “at least” 20 will be sold by the April deadline.
The sculpture, made of recycled aluminum with a bronze finish, would cost $3,000. It is to be purchased from a company in Colorado, Heath said. Additional expenses would include a base featuring the commemorative bricks, as well as a bronze plaque. Lighting may also be installed. The total cost would run about $8,000-10,000, Heath said.
In addition to money raised from selling bricks, funding would come from donations and advertisements in a commemorative book that the association is putting together for the reunion, Heath said. Any leftover money would go to the alumni association’s scholarships.
Having the buffalo statue on the grounds of the old school is important to keeping the school’s legacy alive for alumni and their families, Miller said. And, he added, it could help spur important conversations between generations.