Wake County

NC State and Meredith lose in the Beltline plan. Here’s why this neighborhood survives.

When the first leg of the Raleigh Beltline opened in the early 1960s, it skirted the west side of Method, a community founded by freed African-Americans in the 1870s on farmland west of the city.

Four years ago, when the state Department of Transportation began drawing up plans to widen this stretch of the Beltline, now Interstate 440, the maps showed that the state would carve in to the place residents consider the heart and soul of their neighborhood: An 8.4-acre city park and community center that was home to the Berry O’Kelly Training School, one of the first African-American high schools in North Carolina.

John Goode and others recall when the NCDOT held a public meeting in one of the surviving school buildings and hung those maps on the wall.

“You should have seen the pictures,” says Goode, president of a community group called Method Boys to Men. “Everybody was upset.”

The threat of the highway put new energy and purpose behind a long-standing desire to get the Berry O’Kelly property designated a historic site. Residents approached the Raleigh Historic Development Commission, which spearheaded an effort that resulted in the former campus being named to the National Register of Historic Places in May. On Tuesday, the city may add its recognition to the property when the city council considers naming it a city landmark.

Now the state Department of Transportation has come up with new plans to widen the Beltline and reconfigure the interchanges between Wade Avenue and Interstate 40. In its present form, the project would take dozens of acres of land and several houses and other buildings and would by some accounts irreparably harm two institutions: Meredith College and the N.C. State University Club.

But Method would remain largely unscathed. State and federal laws require NCDOT to minimize its impact on historic properties, and that includes the Berry O’Kelly Historic District. The district’s location on the east side of the highway means adjacent homes in Method would remain untouched as well.

“The historic properties that are identified in the design process, we always seek to minimize our impacts to those,” said Mary Pope Furr, the lead architectural historian for NCDOT. “That’s how the state and the federal laws work. That’s standard process. It’s the same as with endangered species or archaeological sites.”

(Much of the Meredith College campus is also considered historic property, but that doesn’t include the 13 to 16 acres closest to the highway that NCDOT now says it needs for the new Hillsborough Street and Wade Avenue interchanges.)

The preservation of an African-American community is a reversal from a time when highways were often built right through neighborhoods where poor and minority residents were powerless to influence their path. Historians have written volumes about the effect of urban freeway construction on poor and African-American communities starting in the 1950s; in the Triangle, thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed by urban-renewal projects that included new highways through the former Smoky Hollow neighborhood just north of downtown Raleigh and Hayti in Durham.

“We now know – overwhelmingly – that our urban freeways were routed through low-income neighborhoods,” Anthony Foxx said last year when he was still U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor, used his own neighborhood just north of the city center to make his point. “Today, if you live near a freeway, chances are very high that you’re poor. Just look at Charlotte.”

Method remains a majority African-American community of modest homes and apartments. The median household income of $26,573 in 2015 was less than half the city median, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Many who fought for the historic designation at Berry O’Kelly no longer live in Method; their careers took them elsewhere.

Marion Jervay, a retired attorney who now lives in Durham, was a grandniece of Berry O’Kelly and grew up in a house on the school grounds, around the corner from the Method post office where her parents worked. She says she approached the Raleigh Historic Development Commission about preparing a nomination for a spot on the national register in the spring of 2015, inspired by a section of an NCDOT report that indicated that the former school and the nearby Oak Grove Cemetery were likely eligible.

Jervay, 69, and others credit the city commission with leading the effort to get formal historic recognition for the Method property where a largely disenfranchised group of people established an institution to educate their children.

“I think the city of Raleigh is particularly aware of the contribution that the African-American community has made to the city and to the vibrancy of the city,” Jervay said.

Boys to Men

Urging the process forward were members of the Method Boys to Men, a group of about 80 current and former Method residents who attended the Berry O’Kelly school and remember Method before the Beltline was built and the community was annexed into the city.

They never knew Berry O’Kelly, a prominent businessman and landowner in Method who was born just after Emancipation and died in 1931. O’Kelly donated land in Method in 1894 for what would eventually become an educational campus for African-Americans, including dorms for students and teachers and buildings for liberal arts classes and for teaching vocational skills. He is buried on the property.

But the Method the boys knew had not changed much from O’Kelly’s day. It was still a tight-knit community.

“It was a solid black community, one in which everyone knew everyone,” says Clem Harris, who graduated from Berry O’Kelly High School and recently returned to Raleigh after a career as a teacher in Rhode Island. “It was very quiet. If anything happened, everybody knew about it.”

Nobody had cars; everyone walked or took the city bus, which came as close as the front gate of Meredith College on Hillsborough Street across the railroad tracks. Families did much of their shopping and went to the movies in downtown Raleigh, where blacks still had to sit in the balcony at the Ambassador Theater on Fayetteville Street.

But in many other ways, living in Method was like living in the country. None of the streets were paved, and water came from wells. Most houses had an outhouse. Families grew and canned vegetables and raised chickens and hogs, which everyone came together to slaughter and butcher in the fall.

The school was the center of the community. The principal, D.W. Moore, lived on the campus, as did some of the teachers. If you did something wrong at school, your parents knew about it before you got home.

In warmer months, the boys spent much of their time on land owned by what was then State College, to the west of Method, picking wild blackberries to sell or gathering apples and other fruit from the college’s orchards.

“We all grew up on real good fruit,” said Goode, the president of Method Boys to Men who moved back to the community in 2010 after a career in the Air Force. “Anything that hit the ground they said we could have. As long as we didn’t shake the trees.”

The Beltline cut between Method and the orchards in the early 1960s. The boys played on the highway when it was under construction and then crossed it to get to the orchards.

“You had to dodge them cars to get over the apple orchard,” said Goode, noting that the traffic was nothing like the 85,000 cars and trucks that pass by Method each day now.

NCSU still owns the property west of the Beltline, though now it’s full of office buildings, laboratories and greenhouses.

Avoiding the historic district in Method on the east side of the road means NCDOT needs to take more property on the west side; the current plan would result in the loss of two university buildings used for offices and labs, 60 parking spaces in front of a third building and a vacant building lot. The university would also lose a practice facility used by its golf team near the Wade Avenue interchange, noted Jeff Bandini, the associate vice chancellor for real estate and development.

“None of those facilities are going to be easy or cheap to replace,” Bandini said.

The university appreciates the importance of the Method historic district and doesn’t see a solution to its potential losses in shifting the project to the east. But Bandini says they’re still talking to NCDOT about how to make up for the property for a growing university that is already at capacity.

“We’re talking to DOT about all of our options, but we haven’t identified a specific strategy,” he said.

An earlier threat

This is not the first time the Berry O’Kelly school property has saved Method from being partly demolished for a freeway.

The Berry O’Kelly Training School had become a part of the Wake County school system in the spring of 1958 when superintendent Fred Smith discovered that the State Highway Commission planned to put what was then known as the Raleigh bypass across school property. Smith and school board members agreed that the highway would force the county to abandon the Berry O’Kelly property as a school.

“I don’t know why they didn’t pay us the courtesy of letting us know,” Smith told the board.

The county objected, and the highway commission agreed a month later to shift the road farther west, sparing the Berry O’Kelly school. Left unsaid in the news coverage of the dispute at the time is that moving the highway also saved several houses adjacent to the school property.

It was integration that finally doomed the school. Rather than fix up the buildings, the county chose to close the Berry O’Kelly high school in 1966 and the elementary school the following year, scattering their students to integrated schools in Raleigh and Cary.

Most of the Berry O’Kelly buildings were soon torn down, except the gymnasium, which eventually became part of the city community center, and what’s known as the agriculture building where vocational classes were taught. Albert Crenshaw, a Boys to Men member who graduated from Berry O’Kelly with Goode in 1964, says the historic designation means the school won’t be forgotten even if little of the physical campus remains.

“Like everywhere else, black history has been swept away,” Crenshaw said. “That’s the only black history that we have left.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling