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November 26, 2020

R.A. Clement School gains inclusion on National Register of Historic Places

CLEVELAND — Every time former students of the old R.A. Clement School set foot on the property — inside or outside — a flood of memories hit them.

And they’re young again.

It happened again Thursday morning for Catrelia Hunter, Leonard Hall, Brenda Avery and Joyce Smyre. They laughed uproariously when they popped into seats of a rusty swing set still on the grounds.

Decades earlier — more than a good half century ago — they would fly up and down in these same swings.

Hall resisted taking a seat himself. “Let me push somebody,” he offered.

More laughter.

The Clement School graduates visited Thursday to celebrate good news: The circa 1929-1930 building, located at 213 Krider St., has been accepted for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Its history is significant for us, it’s significant for the town of Cleveland and it’s significant for Rowan County,” Hunter said, speaking from the room that used to be her second-grade class.

“It really certifies that the building is one of the national treasures you hear about. … It’s a national treasure, and it is a high honor.”

The N.C. Historic Preservation Office and an Under-Represented Communities Grant from the National Park Service made the nomination to the National Register possible.

Architectural historian Heather Slane wrote the nomination, the process for which took less than a year. Not that it was a slam-dunk nomination, but it probably was close.

R.A. Clement School reflects a four-teacher, H-plan, brick educational institution built about 1930. It was made possible in large part through a donation from the Rosenwald Fund.

Aided in the educational pursuit by Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute, philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who made his fortune through Sears, Roebuck & Co. stores, established the fund during segregation times in the South.

Between 1917 and 1932, the fund (with assistance from local communities) constructed 813 schools in North Carolina — the most in any state.

J.C. Price High in Salisbury is another Rosenwald school and also on the National Register.

Angelo Franceschina, a historian and contractor who helped facilitate the nomination, has said fewer than 100 of these Rosenwald schools are still standing in North Carolina.

Of the 5,357 schools, shops, and teacher homes constructed across 15 mostly Southern states, only 10 percent to 12 percent are estimated to survive today, according to the National Register website.

“Attending a Rosenwald School put a student at the vanguard of education for Southern African-American children,” the National Register website adds. “The architecture of the schools was a tangible statement of the equality of all children, and their programming made them a focal point of community identity and aspirations.”

By 1928, the National Register reports, a third of the South’s rural black schoolchildren and teachers were being served by Rosenwald schools.

The West Rowan Neighborhood Center Advisory Council owns the Clement School property today, and the R.A. Clement School Alumni Association raises money for its continuing upkeep and restoration.

Both organizations meet at the building, which also is used for markets, community functions, and youth and adult programs.

Over almost two decades, the fundraising and continuing renovations have led to a meeting room (with stage area), a new roof and new restrooms.

It’s hoped that the National Register inclusion will help with future grant applications and as an incentive for more people to give.

Hall said a new heating and air-conditioning system remains a significant cost need, and Franceschina spoke of goals to restore the old school’s library (or museum) and rooms used for a kitchen, youth and adult activities.

“The community of R.A. Clement School thanks its friends, supporters, donors and our town of Cleveland who are helping make the school’s preservation possible,” the advisory council said in a news release about the National Register notification, which it received Feb. 5.

The school was named for Rufus Alexander Clement, who was born into slavery in 1847 and died in 1933. He donated land for the original Cleveland Colored School in 1878, and that school, closer to Main Street, opened in 1880.

The Rosenwald school came later, and it was officially named for Clement in 1943. Early in its history, R.A. Clement School served as the African-American School (grades one through 11) for a broad western Rowan region.

To secure their 12th year of education, many of the earlier Clement students went to J.C. Price High in Salisbury or a school in Statesville. Hunter said her uncle rode his bicycle back and forth to Price High for his senior year.

Her mother attended a boarding school in Virginia for her senior year, Hunter said.

From 1948 to 1968, R.A. Clement High School (just a short walk toward Main Street and what kids referred to as ‘The Flat Top”) served the black population for the upper grades, while the original Rosenwald building became grades one to five.

R.A. Clement High had its last graduating class in 1968, as West Rowan High became fully integrated with the 1969 class. In 1966, a group of 10 students who had been attending Clement High went to West Rowan on a voluntary basis, while other Clement students stayed where they were.

It started the transition in western Rowan to integration.

Hunter is a 1963 graduate of R.A. Clement High; Hall, a 1967 graduate. They reminisced Thursday about their grade school that drew students from as far away as Second Creek in Salisbury and the communities of Mount Ulla, Bear Poplar, Woodleaf and Scotch-Irish Township.

The school brings happy memories for many of its alumni. “It just seemed like we did a lot of fun things in school when we were here,” Hunter said.

Both Hunter and Hall spoke of the high teacher and parental involvement in the students’ lives and how the teachers and administrators had the students’ best interests at heart.

Hunter said it was like family going to Clement School. There weren’t many secrets.

“Everyone knew everybody, and everyone knew what was going on,” Hall said.

An offshoot of what had been the Clement School PTA, the West Rowan Neighborhood Center Advisory Council purchased the Rosenwald school building in 1971, and it became a community center for families, youths and seniors.

Because of heating and roof problems, the center closed in 1989.

The advisory council and alumni association set out in 2003 to preserve the school, and they raised more than $150,000, bringing parts of the building back to life over the past 15 years.

Hunter reiterated R.A. Clement School is a treasure for the local community, state and nation.

“And it needs to be preserved,” she said.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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