Maggie Williams said legacies were built and lives changed because of the impact of Sampson High School, a landmark she and others want to see preserved and restored for its importance in this community.
“I went there for 12 years. It was the only formal education I had. I guess that’s why I’m so passionate about that school,” said Williams. “It turned out so many people that wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to school. Our history goes down if that building goes down.”
That is the reason she, Blonnie Carr and others have tried so hard in recent years to preserve the school. That effort received a boost with a city partnership that will bring the school’s history and its hopeful future to the forefront this Saturday, Aug. 13.
The Sampson High School Alumni Association (SHSAA) Inc.’s Phase Two Committee, in conjunction with the City of Clinton and the Clinton Historic Preservation Commission, will sponsor a half-day free event aptly-entitled “Importance of Place Workshop: ‘Ole’ Sampson School Matters.” The workshop will extend from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Sampson Center Gym on Barden Street, Clinton. All are invited to attend.
Alumni of the old Sampson High School in Clinton want to restore the deteriorating facility on McKoy Street and transform it into a community resource center. Rose Williams Linen, chairwoman of the Phase Two Committee, said Saturday’s workshop will focus on the SHSAA’s goal, while celebrating the school’s history as a Rosenwald school.
“We would like some of the younger people to know the importance of Sampson High School, especially its status as a Rosenwald school,” said Williams, noting that an older generation with that knowledge is dwindling. “This is trying to get people familiar with the school and what it meant to people.”
A Rosenwald School is one whose construction was aided by funds provided by Julius Rosenwald, an American clothier who became part-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Rosenwald was the founder of The Rosenwald Fund, which provided assistance amid chronic under-funding of public education for African-American children in the South, a disenfranchised populous required to attend segregated schools.
African-American leader Booker T. Washington shared with Rosenwald the plight of young children in the South and convinced him to contribute seed money for the “Rosenwald” schools. Sampson County had five of those, Sampson High being one of them. The school was in operation until 1969.
Located at 615 McKoy St., the school property was purchased by the SHSAA Inc. in 1986 from Sampson County for $57,750, with the intention to preserve and utilize it for a meaningful purpose. Phase One in 1999 saw the renovation of one of the school buildings into eight-unit apartments to provide housing to low-income individuals. Phase Two will include renovating and rehabilitating the school into a community resource center.
“It is not only essential for the SHSAA, Inc. to preserve this very important part of history, but imperative that we do so,” Linen attested, “as there are only a fraction of these schools that remain due to demolition, disrepair or destruction.”
Williams said she understands that some look at the school as an eyesore or see it simply as another dilapidated building. It is much more than that, she implored.
“That’s our legacy,” said Williams, who graduated from Sampson High in 1954. “I hope this (workshop) sparks the attention of people in the community. That school has given us and this community surgeons, doctors, engineers, teachers. It turned out more with less than some institutions.”
Through the upcoming workshop, the Sampson alumni wish to impart the importance of the once-bustling facility on McKoy Street so that it might be the site of sweeping rehabilitation and restoration that will see it preserved and useful again.
At the Aug. 13 event, SHSAA President Faye Faison and Mayor Lew Starling will give remarks and a panel discussion will be held on the history of Sampson High School. That talk will include SHSAA life member/organizer Dr. Jesse Williams and Scholarship Chair Mary Sutton. Claudia Brown with the N.C. State Historic Preservation Office will offer a history lesson about Rosenwald schools and Clinton-Sampson Planning director Mary Rose will also offer comments.
Dr. Jesse Williams graduated from Sampson High School in 1960. He now lives in Fayetteville, but recalled growing up in Clinton. One of 11 children (three died young) of Rev. Jeremiah and Leolar Williams, Dr. Williams lived right across the street from the school. His parents specifically moved close to the school so there would be no excuse for their children not to attend.
“I feel I got a great education there,” said Dr. Williams. “Although it was in the times of segregation, we had great teachers who taught people to become productive citizens. There was a sense of value. They taught the importance of learning and taking care of family. I think the school did a great job in doing that.”
There were vocational and arts classes that further cultivated young minds.
“It was a true asset to the community and the county,” Dr. Williams remarked.
Even though his parents did not make it past third grade because they had to earn a living to help their own families, they wanted Jesse, as well as his four brothers and three sisters, to receive that education.
“They didn’t have any qualms about doing it,” he said of setting up shop across from the school. “They knew the value of a good education and they wanted that for us.”
After his graduation, Dr. Williams attended Fayetteville State, studying biology and physics. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree and before going on to medical school at Howard University, he returned to Sampson High School to teach biology and chemistry for two years, paying it forward and joining the ranks of teachers who had a huge role in the development of Sampson’s youth.
Hazel Colwell was one of the many teachers at the school that sought to offer that valuable education and impart life lessons to her pupils. She came to Clinton in 1953, her first job being a home economics teacher at Sampson High. She would teach there until the mid-1960s, just a couple years before the school closed due to integration. Colwell was one of the first wave of teachers to go to Clinton High School as part of early integration.
“The school really was a pillar of the community,” Colwell said of Sampson High. “Everyone knew everyone. There seemed to be a bond between the community and the school. It was just a close-knit institution. We did a lot of work to turn out kids who would be successful. We turned out a lot of influential people in the county, this state and other states.”
As a home economics teacher (Colwell would serve in the same capacity at Clinton High) she personally made it her goal to impart lessons on parenting, child development, health, good citizenship and love of family and community — “things they could use, regardless of what profession they went on to,” she noted.
Colwell said there are a wealth of memories encased in that old structure on McKoy Street, ones she wants to see preserved and hopefully restored.
“I would like for us to be able to save that school and see it be useful to the community again,” said Colwell. “That was more than a school. It was a bond between parents, teachers and students. It wasn’t large, but it was huge to those who were a part of it.”
Rose said it is hoped the workshop will “spur neighborhood revitalization and community development” as well as educate citizens about the school. She wants the workshop to the first of many highlighting important places within the community. Whether the Saturday event is deemed successful or not, Williams ensured that she and others would continue doing everything in their power to see the school preserved.
“We will still be working on this, even after the workshop,” she assured. “We just want to spark that interest.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.