Walls that talk

Giving People

August 3, 2020

Charlotte Museum of History’s Siloam School restoration is an ambitious project aimed at highlighting the region’s past — and inspiring dialogue surrounding race.

by Michael J. Solender

With a bit of imagination, it’s easy to envision how hopeful the Siloam School appeared to the young Black children, hungry for learning, who crossed its threshold nearly a century ago. 

The tiny single-classroom schoolhouse opened its doors in the early 1920s in a remote and rural northeast corner of Mecklenburg County. The gable-roofed, whitewashed clapboard school, named after the nearby Presbyterian church, proudly anchored more than an acre of cleared land. The school’s design yielded three distinct spaces: the classroom, where a handful of kids learned the “three R’s;” a small cloak room; and an “industrial” room for project work. The work room opened into the larger classroom to create a community meeting and gathering space.

Perched on a sturdy brick foundation and sporting a metal roof, the electricity-free building was constructed facing north to allow in a continual stream of natural light from oversized windows on the east and west walls. A pot-bellied stove kept the classroom warm in the winter, and the windows captured a cooling cross breeze during the warmer days of spring.

Today, the Siloam schoolhouse rests uneasily on its original site beside the Mallard Glen apartment complex and not far from the main campus of UNC Charlotte. What was once a distant and unremarkable patch of red clay in the country is today a mere 20-minute drive from Charlotte’s center city. And while Siloam holds a place in the National Historic Register, its current state of disrepair is so advanced, urgent intervention is needed to save it. 

Photograph Courtesy of McClintock Presbyterian Church
Students outside the McClintock School at McClintock Presbyterian Church, one of seven surviving Rosenwald Schools in Mecklenburg County, circa 1940s.

Bold restoration project

Siloam is one of thousands of such schools built throughout the South after the turn of the 20th century to educate African Americans during the Jim Crow era. Few of the schools remain, and disappearing with them is a visible bridge to our history and important lessons that resonate today.

Charlotte Museum of History is leading a bold initiative to preserve Siloam and honor its legacy. The museum plans to relocate the school to its east Charlotte campus, a project that is estimated to cost about $800,000. There, the museum will stabilize and restore the structure; upfit it with electricity, HVAC and modern safety systems; create an exhibition on the region’s African American history; and use the schoolhouse as a community gathering space to serve as a catalyst for discussion around racial cooperation and reconciliation.

Siloam’s planned rebirth is garnering support from a group of diverse community partners, including the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission; Tribute Companies, which owns the land on which Siloam School currently sits; Aldersgate Retirement Community; Pixelatoms creative studio; and Silver Star Community Inc. Both the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have provided significant funding for the project.

“Jim Crow segregation is one of the roots of the many economic, social and educational inequities that persist today in Charlotte and beyond,” says Adria Focht, Charlotte Museum of History’s president and CEO. “Preserving the Siloam School will provide context and a place to interpret this history. If we lose this building, we lose our connection to the voices of the people in the Siloam community who persisted in their quest for a quality education for their children, despite the forces working against them. 

“Many in Charlotte are conditioned to thinking a plaque or marker is a place where something used to be,” Focht continues. “Siloam, once restored, will not just be an interpretive center, but a community space and place for conversations, dialogue and work toward reconciliation.”

At present, a steady daily stream of traffic whizzes by the broken building’s buckling frame. Partially hidden from view by tall grass and scrubby pines flanking its sides, the schoolhouse decays day by day. 

This architectural drawing shows one of the standard floor plans for Rosenwald schools, including Siloam School.

History of Rosenwald schools

About 5,000 Rosenwald Schools were built throughout 15 Southern states between 1917 and 1932. Their moniker is a nod to Julius Rosenwald, president of retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Co. from 1908-1924. Rosenwald joined in an unlikely alliance with Alabama educator and African American community leader Booker T. Washington to raise funds and provide opportunities for southern rural Black children who otherwise had no access to education. 

Barely one generation beyond the end of the Civil War, Black Americans throughout the country — and especially in the South — experienced disenfranchisement in virtually every aspect of civic life, from property ownership to voting rights and, most dramatically, in education. Separate systems were anything but equal. By 1915, public schools in North Carolina spent $7.40 per white pupil but only $2.30 per Black pupil, compared with the U.S. average of nearly $30 per student, according to research by Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Historian-in-Residence Tom Hanchett, a noted Rosenwald Schools scholar.

“Because of institutionalized racism, African Americans were not getting their fair share of government funding for education,” Hanchett says. “Booker T. Washington had this college (he headed Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University) in the middle of Alabama cotton fields, and all around him were kids who couldn’t read or write. There were no schools for Black kids. Washington initially experimented with building schools with community support yet needed funds to expand.”

He enlisted the aid of Rosenwald, who recognized the economic as well as social benefit in expanding educational opportunities in the deep South, Hanchett says. As the head of Sears, Rosenwald saw an expanded market for sales and distribution into rural America for his products, especially with the advent of the new postal concept at the time of Rural Free Delivery . 

The vestibule at Siloam School shows the original architecture and paint schemes common in many Rosenwald schools built in the South.

“Washington convinced Rosenwald to help build the schools through the use of an innovative matching-grants program,” Hanchett says. “And what they created turned Rosenwald Schools into one of the most amazing stories in the American history of education.”

A three-legged stool of financial support drove their development. Local community funds and land donations, Rosenwald Foundation contributions, and municipal school-system funds led to nearly one in five rural Southern schools being part of the Rosenwald program by 1928. No state had more schools than North Carolina with 813, including a small number of teacher homes and workshops. Mecklenburg County was home to 24 Rosenwald schools, according to Fisk University, which maintains a database about the schools. Just seven remain in the county today.

Communities were provided with architectural blueprints and operating principles for the schools, in addition to cash for construction. Though no documentation indicates that Siloam received funding from the Rosenwald Foundation, the school’s design, location and historic pedigree place it clearly among its Rosenwald peers. Many of the South’s rural schools of the time built outside of formal Rosenwald funding were able to take advantage of resources such as design plans, according to Hanchett.

Siloam was one of five schools for African American children in the Mallard Creek district at the time, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. The commission noted two successive teachers — who likely lived in the city and commuted daily to tend to their young charges — were paid annual salaries of $50 and $55, respectively, from 1922-1925. 

Wesley Heights resident William Pride attended Mecklenburg County’s Clear Creek Rosenwald School, graduating in 1959. “There was no indoor plumbing and no electricity,” says Pride, whose graduating class was about 15 students. “We knew we were getting hand-me-down materials; the names of other schools were imprinted in our textbooks. What bothered me the most was I lived off Idlewild Road next door to a white family and played with their kids, but I had to go to Clear Creek, and they went to East Mecklenburg. It didn’t seem right, yet that was the time we lived in.”

Preserving cultural touchstones

“Few Rosenwald School buildings survive today, in Charlotte or elsewhere,” Focht says. “The Siloam School provided educational opportunities denied to Black children in the South. It represents an important moment in our history.”

The projected cost of relocating and restoring the structure includes development of the history exhibit, Focht says. To date, about $200,000 has been raised. 

“We’re two years into our five-year campaign and experiencing tremendous momentum,” Focht says. “There is a groundswell of community partners coming together to support the project. Part of what we are doing is raising grass roots awareness and interest in the project as a community resource.” The museum is targeting 2023 for the project’s completion. 

As a prominent New South city, Charlotte hasn’t always taken advantage of preserving cultural touchstones that once defined and differentiated the city. Urban renewal projects of the 1960s tore at the fabric of Charlotte’s African American communities such as Brooklyn, and even recent efforts to preserve other significantly important Black landmarks such as the Excelsior Club have been met with limited enthusiasm. These actions have led some to believe Charlotte has a dubious reputation for tearing down rather than preserving its physical history. 

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles helped secure $50,000 in city funding for the Siloam project. “Projects like Save Siloam School are important investments for our city to make,” Lyles said at an on-site ceremony in January 2019. 

“While we have great opportunities in our city going forward, we have to remember and be reminded that everyone didn’t have a chance to get equal footing,” Lyles says. “The idea of addressing social justice and equity through history is a very important one.”

George Dunlap, chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, agrees. “There aren’t many historical sites for the African American community that still exist here,” says Dunlap, who attended grade school at the segregated Sterling School in Pineville, now Sterling Elementary and once known as Pineville Colored School. “This [segregation] is a part of history, the education of African Americans [during Jim Crow], and important to be preserved.” 

Mecklenburg County has supported the Siloam School project with $125,000. Dunlap expressed hope the county’s contribution might inspire others, especially corporate donors, to step up with support. 

Upon completion of the relocation and restoration, the museum looks for Siloam School to be a teaching resource, shedding light on the lives of rural African American families in Mecklenburg County in the early 20th century and acting as a lens to better view contemporary social-justice issues. “It’s important for African American children, and all of our children, today to see what their foreparents had to do to get an education,” Dunlap says. “It can provide both motivation and inspiration. I want this legacy preserved for my children, grandchildren and their children.”  SP

To learn more about the Charlotte Museum of History’s effort to preserve Siloam School, visit its website.

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