James Monroe remembers winning second place in a brick-laying contest at Washington Graded and High School, Raleigh’s first public high school for black students.
He also remembers drinking from separate water fountains while growing up in the city during the 1940s and ’50s.
“Anything that was public had a segregated side on it,” said Monroe, 86, who graduated from Washington in 1951. “All the nice things were forbidden to use or participate in (by African-Americans).”
Two years ago, Washington’s class of 1951 raised about $1,500 and installed a bronze plaque and spruce tree on the campus near downtown, which now houses an elementary school. The plaque names the school’s founders and former leaders, noting that Washington “led North Carolina to the status of foremost southern state in Negro public education.”
Now the group wants the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources to install a historical marker at the school. It has applied to the state and is waiting to hear back.
Washington was originally an elementary school on South Street near downtown. Its high school program grew out of the persistent efforts of African-American parents and leaders.
When Washington opened on Fayetteville Street in 1924, it enrolled elementary students through high school students. Until then, African-American students in Raleigh had no public education options beyond elementary school. Shaw University and St. Augustine’s University offered private high school classes but began reducing their programs in the 1920s.
Blacks with elementary-level schooling could expect to get jobs as babysitters, cooks and hired hands, Monroe said. A high school diploma often meant better jobs and higher salaries.
After graduating, Monroe joined the Air Force, where he served as a medic and later as an airplane technician. He returned to Raleigh and raised a family.
Washington, which was Raleigh’s only public high school school for blacks until 1954, gave African-American families an opportunity to expand their education locally. Before it opened, some families moved to the North in search of high schools for their children, Monroe said.
Ligon High School, an all-black school, opened in 1953 in Raleigh, and Washington closed its high school program. Over the decades, the Washington site has been a middle and elementary school and a sixth-grade center. It was integrated in 1971, and five years later the city and Wake County school systems merged.
The building now houses Washington Elementary, a magnet school with a gifted and talented theme. Principal Bob Grant said high school alumni often drop in to share memories and visit their old classrooms.
“It’s a school that has a strong history and grounding in the community,” Grant said. “You have people from their 40s on up who remember coming here.”
In 2003, Washington was designated as a local historic site by Raleigh’s Historic Preservation Association. Monroe is hopeful a state marker will be approved.
“We want people to know what the school did for Raleigh and North Carolina,” he said.
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler