Last week, more than a half century after the last students left the building, St. Matthew School joined the list of Raleigh Historic Landmarks.
The St. Matthew’s School on Louisburg Road is one of five remaining Rosenwald Schools in Wake County. Built in 1922 with funds from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, the school served black students through the 1940s. It’s now operated as a community center by the St. Matthew Baptist Church next door.
“It’s a landmark in the community,” said Pryce Baldwin, a deacon at the church. “Today it’s sort of a beacon for younger people who don’t have the experience of what it was like in a one-room schoolhouse.”
That the school was built at all – and then preserved for decades after it closed – is a testament to the church community at St. Matthew. The church itself dates to the 1870s, serving a rural, predominantly black community along the dirt road toward Louisburg.
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In the 1920s, church members worked with the Rosenwald Foundation to give their kids a shot at a formal education. Rosenwald, a philanthropist and Sears Roebuck founder, chipped in several thousand dollars at 5,300 sites with community members raising the rest. The St. Matthew Church picked a floor plan with large windows to let in natural light – the area didn’t yet have electricity.
“It’s almost a kind of cooperative in that he lended his expertise from that direction and the community lended their expertise,” Baldwin said.
Wake County was home to about 20 of the schools, according to a study by Fisk University. Only five remain, and St. Matthew was nearly among those demolished.
The church bought the building after the school closed in the 1940s, and its students were sent to another black school in Wake Forest. The church divided the structure into apartments, but those fell into disrepair and were abandoned in the 1980s.
Church leaders were ready to burn the dilapidated building down by the early 1990s when they learned of its rich history. “I said, ‘we need to do something – we need to preserve if we can,’” Baldwin said.
The renovation started in 1995 with the goal of returning the building to its original floor plan: one large room separated by a movable partition. Dozens of alumni turned out for the dedication the following year, including Wake County Commissioner (and later, state Senator) Vernon Malone.
Today, it again has a role in children’s education, often hosting a daycare program. The new landmark status granted by the Raleigh City Council brings a tax break for the owners and gives the Raleigh Historic Development Commission the power to review changes to the exterior of the building. It joins 155 other buildings in the city with the designation.
In the same vote, the council also added The Mecca Restaurant on East Martin Street is one of the oldest downtown eateries, welcoming its first customers in 1937. Its building dates to the 1800s.
Now the Raleigh Historic Development Commission is considering adding another building: the Atwater-Perry House at 904 E. Hargett St. It dates to 1898 and was home to the city’s first black mail carrier.