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Haywood County Black School celebrates National Register of Historic Places designation

Pigeon Street School was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 26, 2021. This weekend, the designation will be celebrated in Waynesville.
Sybil Argintar
Pigeon Street School was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 26, 2021. The designation was celebrated in Waynesville.

Haywood County community members celebrated the addition of a community center that served as a Haywood county school for Black children prior to integration to the National Register of Historic Places on Saturday afternoon.

The Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center received the designation in 2021, but the celebration was postponed due to the pandemic.

Designed by Asheville architect Lindsey Madison, the Pigeon Street School was completed in 1957 in downtown Waynesville. The building was the only public school built in the late 1950s for the Black residents in the town.

Courtesy of the Pigeon Multicultural Development Center Facebook page
Courtesy of the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center Facebook page
The Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center celebrated the designation with a community event.

The center is launching a campaign for a commemorative brick walkway, according to their social media accounts. The walkway will honor former students, teachers, parents and businesses that supported Pigeon Street School.

The school’s report for the national historic registry cites historical research on the access to education for Black people in Western North Carolina including an 1869 report.

The report by North Carolina Assistant Superintendent James Walker Hood, a Black minister, noted that other than a handful of religiously-based schools, there was not “a single day school beyond the Blue Ridge.”

The first Pigeon Street School building was built as part of the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1924, according to the report. It was one of 800 Rosenwald schools built in North Carolina, the only Rosenwald school in Haywood County. It was located across the street from the school’s current location.

In the report, Georgia Forney, a current Waynesville resident born in 1930, recalled attending the school.

“I started to school there when I was six years old [1936] and Miss Mary [Marion] Kemp Howell was my first grade teacher,” Forney said in the report. “My mother and I and my grandfather we all lived on East Street and we used to come over to Pigeon Street and we walked.”

Before 1948, students from Waynesville attended either Stephens Lee, the public high school for African-American children built in 1923, or the Allen School, founded in 1887, both located in Asheville, according to the report. Waynesville students lived with family or friends in Asheville while attending Stephens Lee, but the Allen School was a boarding school with a large dormitory. Many students from the Allen School continued to college.

It was not until 1948 that the only high school for Black students in Haywood County was completed, named Reynolds High School, with many students from Waynesville traveling by bus to Canton each day to attend school there.

Lin Forney, the Pigeon Center’s current director, remembered attending the new school built in 1957. She began attending school in the building from 1962 through fourth grade.

“Walking with my older brothers and my sister to school here, because of course we walked here from our home [on the hill above Pigeon Street], and I remember how the teachers would just cuddle us around them. They were strict as they could be but at the same time I always felt that I was loved and cared for,” Forney said in the report.

The report explained that school integration came under consideration in Haywood County as early as 1955, soon after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision but it took many more years for schools to be desegregated in the county, essentially pushed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964

It was not until 1966 that the Haywood Schools finally integrated, and the two separate school systems combined into one, according to the report.

The report said that Reynolds High School in Canton and the Pigeon Street School in Waynesville closed in 1966 when schools desegregated, and all African-American students in Waynesville began attending the formerly all-white Central Elementary School, Waynesville Junior High School, Waynesville Township High School and later Tuscola High School in Waynesville.

When the Pigeon Street School closed in 1966, the school board converted the building to the Instructional Materials Center for the county schools until 2001 when the Pigeon Community Development Center began leasing the building, according to the report. The Haywood County Consolidated School System Board of Education sold the building to Haywood County in 2002, with the county then granting easements for sidewalks, curbing, and utilities to the Town of Waynesville in 2003 and 2004.

The report bring the history of the building to present day stating that the Pigeon Community Development Center, a non-profit organization and the current owner, bought the building in 2017 with the stipulation in the deed that the property must remain in public use or ownership would revert back to the county.

The report lists the history of all of the Black schools in the region:

  • Swain County built a Rosenwald school in western North Carolina in 1918 – 1919, consolidating four districts into one.
  • Transylvania County had a Rosenwald school, built 1920 - 1921 on the west side of Brevard.  In Brevard, in Transylvania County, a new school was built in 1950, replacing its earlier Rosenwald building that had burned.
  • Buncombe County’s Rosenwald school was built 1927 - 1928 in the Shiloh community of south Asheville, replacing an earlier school there built in1 909 when George Vanderbilt moved African- American residents from his estate to the Shiloh area. 
  • East Flat Rock also had a Rosenwald school, a three-teacher school built in 1922 – 1923, with Black students bussed there from nearby communities. 
  • Macon County had a two-teacher school to serve its small Black population, built in 1922- 1923.
  • There were many other Rosenwald schools built in western North Carolina, including those in Clay, Cherokee, Ashe, Avery, Surry, Alexander, Jackson, McDowell, Polk, and Wilkes counties, but the only known extant ones that have not been considerably altered are the Bridgewater School in McDowell County, built 1921 – 1922, and Long Ridge School (originally Mars Hill Colored School), a two-teacher school in Madison County, built in 1928 – 1929. 
  • Haywood County was included in the Rosenwald building program. The current Pigeon Street School in Waynesville-the third of the schools for the Black community located in this area of town- replaced the Rosenwald school built in 1924 that was located across the street from the current school building.
  • It wasn’t until 1952 that a small school for Black students was built in Yancey County. There had been a poor facility before this, but it was condemned by the county and parents were asked to send their children to Buncombe County, traveling 40miles each way.  At the time, the first school for Black students was condemned, the board had voted to spend $350,000 on a new white school.  Black parents in the community pooled resources and purchased a van to transport their children to Stephens-Lee in Asheville, or Long Ridge School, a Rosenwald school, in Mars Hill in Madison County.  Despite these difficulties, Yancey County was one of the first western counties to integrate schools, in 1962, following a court order that Black students were not receiving an equal education.
Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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