Someone started a five-alarm fire at a former school and community center in East Spencer Dec. 30, but authorities said Tuesday they don’t know if it was a deliberate act of destruction or a fire for warmth that got out of hand.
The fire destroyed part of the Dunbar Center on South Long Street. The vacant building had been used as a community center from about 1995 to 2007, but its roots as a school date to 1900.
“It has been everything to this community,” East Spencer Mayor Barbara Mallett said. “It’s been a beacon on the hill for this community.”
The official cause of the fire is undetermined, Rowan County Fire Marshal Deborah Horne said. The fire started on the north side of the building, but it is unknown whether it was intended to destroy the building or was set by someone trying to stay warm, Horne said.
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The building was not secured, she said.
Horne said East Spencer police turned over their investigation to the State Bureau of Investigation and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
There was more than $200,000 damage to the building, according to Horne.
“A lot of citizens who attended Dunbar are just heartbroken over the devastation,” she added.
Before it was a community center, the site had operated as an all-black school during in the first half of the 20th century, then was a middle school after desegregation.
East Spencer is about 45 minutes northeast of Charlotte. The town has an estimated population of about 1,500 people.
Some 75 firefighters fought the blaze, which had broken out about 8 p.m. and destroyed about half of the structure. No one was hurt fighting the fire.
A long history
The school dates to 1900, when it was a one-room wooden building known as the East Spencer Negro School, according to a history of the school written by two teachers.
By the early 1920s, the school had expanded to include 11 classrooms, an auditorium and a library, and it was renamed the Dunbar School. High school classes were gradually added, with the first high school graduation coming in 1928.
But a decade later, in March 1938, a fire destroyed Dunbar High.
A new building went up the next year that later included a number of additions, including one in 1958. The structure from 1958 was the part of the building that was damaged in the fire, Horne said.
In 1969, as part of a reorganization in the school district, Dunbar High was remade into the North Rowan Middle School.
Before the fire, Mallett said, she had been talking with some folks in the community about finding a way for the city to get control of the building, then turn it over to a developer. The Dunbar site is owned by Shady Grove Baptist Church in East Spencer, Mallett said.
Dunbar alumni from across the country have left messages of support and concern on the town’s Facebook page, the mayor said.
They and she share the same hope: that the center can someday be used again by the residents of East Spencer.