Midtown Raleigh News

Family, alumni push for national historic designation for former African-American school in Raleigh

Only one building of the Berry O’Kelly Training School still stands in the Method community of west Raleigh. The city owns the building.
Only one building of the Berry O’Kelly Training School still stands in the Method community of west Raleigh. The city owns the building. mhankerson@newsobserver.com

John Goode learned agriculture, arithmetic and French at the Berry O’Kelly Training School.

He also learned leadership skills that helped him climb the ranks during a 30-year career in the U.S. Air Force.

“For a small school, they did turn out some excellent citizens,” said Goode, 69.

Descendents of Berry O’Kelly, a prominent black leader, and alumni of the African-American school that operated in Raleigh during segregation hope the lone remaining building on campus will become a national historic place.

They are working with the city of Raleigh, which owns the building in the Method community of west Raleigh, to apply for the designation. The city uses the space as part of the Method Community Center.

They also hope the Oak Grove Cemetery, an African-American cemetery that dates back to the Civil War in the Method community, will become a national historic place.

On Tuesday, the Raleigh Historic Development Commission invited residents to share photos and other relics from the cemetery and the school, which closed in 1967 when schools integrated.

The materials provided by residents will be used in the nomination paperwork to be submitted to the National Parks Service.

The old school building is already designated a historic place by Raleigh. A national historic designation wouldn’t give the building any more special protection from teardown and development.

But national recognition means more people would learn about the importance of O’Kelly and the school’s graduates who went on to serve their communities, said Marion Jervay. O’Kelly was Jervay’s great-uncle.

“I hope we can focus not just on Berry O’Kelly,” Jervay said. “It took a community, and graduates have gone on to make meaningful contributions.”

Berry O’Kelly opened the school in a log hut in 1871, and it grew to become the largest rural school for African-Americans in North Carolina.

The school began expanding in 1914, and by 1931 it served students in elementary through high school. The campus eventually encompassed eight buildings, including a gymnasium and dormitories.

The school’s history is closely linked to the Method community, which formed after the Civil War as a place where whites and blacks lived among each other.

O’Kelly was born in Chapel Hill in 1860 and made his way to the Method community in the 1880s. He worked at a general store, which he eventually owned.

Teachers worked hard at the school, Goode said. Students were involved in sports and social events, including school dances.

“Our teachers were very into educating us and it was a well-organized school,” he said. “This was a good place to go.”

Students came from all over central and eastern North Carolina to attend the Berry O’Kelly Training School, sometimes because it was the closest school for them.

For Goode, pursuing a national historic designation is the least the school’s alumni can do. He said many students left the Method community as adults and didn’t fight hard enough to retain more of the school’s history.

“It was one of the greatest times of my life,” he said of attending the school. “It gave me the understanding that I could do anything in life I wanted to do.”

Mechelle Hankerson: 919-829-4802, @mechelleh