Rowan authorities investigating cause of 5-alarm East Spencer fire

In the early 1950s, Essie K. Foxx attended the all-black, segregated Dunbar High School in East Spencer. It was a place, Foxx said, where everyone felt like family.

Following desegregation, the Rowan County building was used as a middle school, and later it became a community center. The site remained vacant after the center closed a few years ago, although Foxx has helped organize high school reunions there since the 1980s.

But on Tuesday night, a five-alarm fire ripped through the vacant Dunbar Center on South Long Street, and about half the structure was burned, authorities said.

“It’s such a great loss to us in the community,” Foxx said. “There was a lot of history and heritage. It’s just gone.”

Rowan fire officials were working Wednesday to determine the cause of the blaze, county Fire Marshal Deborah Horne said.

“There are a lot of people hurting this morning,” she said. “A lot of people went to school here or sent their kids here.”

East Spencer is about 45 miles northeast of Charlotte and has an estimated population of 1,534 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The fire began shortly before 8 p.m., Horne said, and 75 firefighters responded to the blaze. There were no injuries.

Firefighters remained on the scene throughout the night. There was still a lot of smoke at the scene Wednesday morning, which hampered efforts to get inside the building, Horne said.

Foxx’s grandson, lifelong East Spencer resident Tony Hillian, worked as the activity director at the center and said it was open from about 1995 to 2007. The facility had a gym and hosted events ranging from summer camps and 4-H clubs to tutoring and AA meetings.

Hillian spoke from his church, Southern City Tabernacle AME Zion Church, which had opened its doors for firefighters and the Red Cross Tuesday night as the nearby fire raged.

“This was the heart of the community,” Hillian said.

Others took to Twitter to express their feelings.

Fateama Fulmore, the principal of North Rowan High, tweeted, “Sad to hear of the Dunbar Center fire in Spencer. This is a special place dear to the heart of many. Prayers for our school community.”

The reunions that Foxx helped run are held every other year, and the next one was scheduled for Labor Day 2015. It’s a three-day celebration that includes a parade and the handing out of scholarships.

Before the fire, Foxx said, she and others in town had hoped to see the center reopen one day to provide a place for local kids to go.

“All we had in East Spencer was that center,” she said. “All our hopes and dreams went up in smoke.”