DURHAM — The old Whitted School, on Umstead Street just south of the Durham Freeway, holds a lot of memories for a lot of people.
Unfortunately, it also holds a lot of broken glass, jimmied doors, asbestos and a roof gaping open to the elements. Vandals have torn out copper and other metals; homeless people and criminals have used it for shelter.
"She's been ripped and stripped and windows busted out all over," said Michael Spencer, a Whitted alumnus who lives in the nearby C.C. Spaulding neighborhood. "Every time people ask me about it, they get a little emotional about the condition it's in."
Two weeks ago, county commissioners directed staff to start a process to stabilize the county-owned building. Just in itself, that's an estimated $1.4 million job, mostly for lead and asbestos removal and a new roof.
Just where the money's coming from has not been decided, said County Manager Mike Ruffin, but, "We have a number of sources for it."
Whitted is within the Rolling Hills/Southside area the city proposes to redevelop, and Mayor Bill Bell said thecity might be interested in helping the county restore the school building.
"No doubt the school could serve as a linchpin for the Rolling Hills/Southside area," Bell said.
For Spencer and others, the school is more than a potential linchpin.
"Oh, my goodness, I have so many good memories," said Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden, who attended junior high there.
The school's history goes back to 1887, when Durham established the first black grade school in North Carolina. It grew and expanded and, in 1922, students moved into a new building on Umstead Street next to black-only Hillside Park. That Hillside Park High School is ancestor to the present-day Hillside High.
By 1949, the student body and curriculum had outgrown Hillside Park High's building. The city school board decided on a swap - moving the high school to the newer J.A. Whitted Elementary building near N.C. Central University, and the elementary pupils to Umstead Street along with the Whitted name. Later, Whitted Elementary became Whitted Junior High.
"It was a wonderful, wonderful place, where teachers embraced us and helped us become what we are," McFadden said.
Whitted School closed in the mid-1970s. Later, it served as quarters for an anti-poverty agency and became county property through a real-estate swap with Durham Public Schools. It has been vacant for years, and since 2005, the county has spent about $25,000 in largely futile efforts to keep the building secured.
Spencer and others would like it used for vocational training, in a neighborhood that suffers greatly from unemployment; Durham Public Schools is thinking of it for a pre-kindergarten center; Commissioner Becky Heron has mentioned a senior center.
"It's huge," she said. "There's so much room in there that so many different activities could take place in there, maybe. If we could fix up the building."
email@example.com or 919-641-5895