Wake hopes to document history of segregated black schools before it is ‘lost’

Remembering Wake County’s segregated black schools

The Wake County school system wants students to document the history of the district's historically segregated black schools. The Voices of Washington project done by students at Washington Elementary School in Raleigh is highlighted as an example.
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The Wake County school system wants students to document the history of the district's historically segregated black schools. The Voices of Washington project done by students at Washington Elementary School in Raleigh is highlighted as an example.

In the face of Jim Crow laws and lack of resources, African-American educators worked for decades to educate thousands of black students in segregated Wake County schools.

Many of those black schools closed in the 1960s when desegregation began to take hold throughout the South. The Wake County school system announced this week a new initiative, “Respecting Our History, Building Our Future,” to have students document the history of those segregated schools while the alumni and teachers are still around to share their experiences.

“We want to unleash the creative power of our students and our community to document this history before it is lost,” school board chairman Jim Martin said at this week’s board meeting as the initiative was announced during Black History Month.

The Wake County school system and Raleigh City Schools operated separate schools for black and white students for decades. Martin said he identified 45 historically segregated black schools that were located around the county. The districts merged in 1976.

Much of the focus on school integration in Wake has been on the first African-American students who attended formerly white schools in the 1960s and early 1970s. But Martin said the experiences of the students in the segregated schools deserves to be remembered, too.

“What’s lost in that story is the educational excellence and amazing work of the African-American teachers and leaders and students in the historically segregated schools,” Martin said. “People went to the white schools because they tended to be more resourced. But what we cannot do is to let the history of all of these great leaders get lost.”

The school board is asking schools to form teams of students and teachers who will research historically segregated schools that operated in their areas. The district wants people in the community to step up and agree to be interviewed for the project.

“It’s a great idea because a lot of the school’s history has been lost,” said Randy Harrington, president of the Apex Consolidated School Alumni Association. “If you say Apex Consolidated nowadays, the kids say, ‘Huh.’ They don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Apex Consolidated served the town’s black students before it became Apex Elementary School after integration in the 1970s. Harrington said students will benefit from hearing about how the students dealt with the struggles they faced.

“Our teachers instilled in us pride and work effort and determination,” Harrington, 64, said. “They told us you’ve got to excel, you can’t just be good, you’ve got to be excellent.”

There are already examples of what the project could look like. Students and teachers from Washington Elementary School in Raleigh came to Tuesday’s board meeting to highlight their “Voices of Washington” project that helped lead to the school being named a national historic landmark.

Washington opened in 1924 as Raleigh’s first African-American public high school. After integration, Washington became an elementary school.

“Overall, Washington was a very important place,” said Vansh Jain, a fourth-grade student at Washington who worked on the project. “It marked the beginning of African-American education in Raleigh.”

The project included having students interview alumni from Washington when it was a segregated school. Riley Bigham, a fourth-grade student, said it was especially meaningful for her to work on the project since she’s an African-American student.

“My history teaches me about what my ancestors experienced, believed and fought for so that I could have a better life, the option to have a good education and experience the world in a more equal way for minorities,” Riley said.

Martin said he expects students to develop lasting memories talking with the alumni and staff at those segregated schools.

Mary Jordan, 64, said she looks forward to sharing her experiences attending the Apex Consolidated School.

“It gives kids a sense of pride to know their school has a sense of history, that it wasn’t just put there,” she said.

The district says it will be up to the students, teachers and community members who work on the project to decide how to document their findings. It could include websites, social media, film, written or audio documentation, and photos.

“We don’t know what we’re going to find,” Martin said. “That’s the great thing about any real research project. I can’t tell you today what we’re going to end up discovering. But you all are going to make that happen and that’s our challenge.”

How you can help

If you are a community member who would like to be part of Wake County’s effort to document the history of its historically black segregated schools, contact Lisa Luten, lluten@wcpss.net, or Michael Yarbrough, myarbrough2@wcpss.net.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.