Durham County

Durham to consider landmark designation for the historic Whitted School

The Durham City Council will conduct a public hearing Tuesday before considering the adoption of an ordinance to designate the J.A. Whitted School as a local historic landmark.

In 2011, the city council endorsed the revision of the Local Historic Landmark program that required a pre-application process to help create a study list of local landmarks.

In December 2013 the Whitted School building at South Roxboro and East Umstead streets was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

According to a staff report provided to council members at a Jan. 5 workshop meeting, the owner, Whitted School Redevelopment LLC, is requesting the city designate the James A. Whitted School – formerly known as Hillside Park High School – as a Durham Historic Landmark.

What is now Hillside High School is one of only five of some 300-plus historically black North Carolina high schools to survive as a school in the post-segregation era, though it no longer occupies any of its original sites.

Belk Architecture submitted the paperwork for the Whitted School to be considered a local historic landmark, with information submitted by Jennifer Martin Mitchell of Durham-based MDM Historical Consulting.

Mitchell’s application included historic information from The Herald-Sun and its predecessors The Durham Morning Herald and The Durham Sun, minutes of the since-merged Durham City Schools Board of Education and academic publications.

The Whitted School was established in 1887 as the state’s first African-American grade school and named after its principal, James A. Whitted, “a highly respected, self-educated former slave from Orange County,” according to the city’s staff report.

According to Mitchell’s application, the school met at a church and tobacco house before construction of a building that opened in 1893 on Ramsey Street.

The application states a fire that destroyed the 1893 building in 1921.

John Sprunt Hill sold a 4.48-acre parcel to house a new school that opened in 1922 on the corner of what are now South Roxboro and East Umstead streets – along the northern edge of Hillside Park in the Hayti African-American district, according to Mitchell’s application and a Durham County Deed Book.

The site where the 1922 building was constructed is where the applicant is seeking the landmark designation.

The Whitted School reopened as Hillside Park High School in 1922, with William Gaston Pearson as its principal, according to the staff report that cites “The Journal of Negro History.”

After Pearson retired from the school in 1940, “Park” was dropped from the school’s name, and the first class under a 12-year graded system graduated in 1940, according to Mitchell’s application and a 1982 City of Durham report.

Prominent Hillside High School alumni include activist Pauli Murray, gospel singer Shirley Caesar, artist Ernie Barnes, former basketball players John Lucas and Rodney Rogers and former state Sen. Jeanne Hopkins Lucas.

According to the staff report and Mitchell’s application, a group of African-American parents and guardians filed a lawsuit against the Durham City Schools in the Jim Crow-era South to advocate for equal funding for African-American schools, resulting in the conversion of the James A. Whitted Junior High to an elementary school, with construction of the 1954-1955 wing.

In July 1950, Durham City Schools Superintendent L. Stacy Weaver announced Hillside High School would move to the larger James A. Whitted Elementary School, and that school would occupy the original Hillside Park High School building – each school keeping its own name in the move.

According to Mitchell’s application, citing school board minutes, on Sept. 3, 1957 Evelyn McKissick and her attorney husband, Floyd McKissick, filed an application transfer for their daughter, Joycelyn McKissick, from Hillside High School to high school nearest residence, which was the all-white Durham High School, now Durham School of the Arts.

At the same meeting, eight Whitted Junior High students applied to all-white Carr Junior High School. All requests were denied.

In 1959, the board approved reassigning seven African-American students to white schools. Those students were Lucy Jones, Anita Brame, Henry Vickers, Andree McKissick, Jocelyn McKissick, Sylvester Cary Williams and Amos Augustic Williams.

Durham City Schools approved integration for all schools and grade levels in 1970, the same year James. A Whitted School vacated this building.

In March 2016, the owner broke ground to rehabilitate the building at a cost of about $22.8 million – with funds from Durham County, Durham Public Schools, the City of Durham, other capital partners, loans and tax credits.

The $21.5 million project will include 79 low-to-moderate income apartments for senior citizens and eight preschool classrooms that will serve 144 children operated by the Durham Public Schools.