Southern Pines Primary School

Southern Pines Primary School on Carlisle Street.

The fate of Southern Pines Primary School once students leave this winter remains up in the air for now.

Negotiations between the school board and the nonprofit that has already begun to reimagine the West Southern Pines campus as a cultural heritage and education center are still in progress.

Moore County Schools plans to vacate the 17 acres on Carlisle Street by January. The students at the primary school will head to the new Southern Pines Elementary mid-year, once that school is complete.

Though that may be the final chapter in the site’s long history as a public school, leaders of the Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust believe that it still has a role to play in the story of West Southern Pines.

Once an independent township, West Southern Pines became a closely knit community for black golf caddies and farm workers in the early 20th century. For eight years, it had its own municipal government — complete with a police force and school, hospital and thriving economy.

“West Southern Pines has such a unique and important contribution to the success of the resort,” said Fenton Wilkinson, an attorney who’s taken the role of project manager for the land and housing trust. “There are stories to be told there.”

In 1920, one of the 17 Rosenwald schools in Moore County was established where Southern Pines Primary now sits. The program, a partnership between Booker T. Washington and Sears and Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald, matched community investment to develop schools for black children.

West Southern Pines’ charter was revoked by the state in 1931 at the request of Southern Pines’ town board, which claimed that the community harbored criminals and that the black community was incapable of self-governance. Annexing the township also incorporated McDeeds Creek into Southern Pines, which supplied water to the town’s growing population.

The Rosenwald school was demolished in 1950 and replaced with the buildings that are still there today. West Southern Pines School later became the segregated West Southern Pines High. The campus has been a school for kindergarten through second grade students since Southern Middle opened in 1999.

Along with Southern Pines Elementary on May Street, the school board has declared the primary school campus as surplus as of Dec. 31.

The Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust expressed interest last year in acquiring the school, and was granted the right to an exclusive negotiation as a nonprofit seeking to preserve the campus as a historical site. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the board has extended the deadline for those negotiations to Aug. 1.

True Value?

What constitutes “fair value” for the property is likely to prove a sticking point as negotiations move forward. Were the schools not retiring the campus, it would need about $5 million worth of repairs and renovations to remain in service.

Moore County Schools had both Southern Pines campuses, as well as the Aberdeen schools, appraised late last year. That appraisal valued the Southern Pines Primary campus at $630,000. The land trust commissioned its own appraisal this past spring, which valued the school at one-third of that.

Whether the community support that’s arisen around the group’s mission to reinvent the school can help cover the ground in between remains to be seen.

Moore County Partners in Progress, the West Southern Pines Civic Club, and Moore County Arts Council have endorsed the land trust’s plans for the primary school. Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church has pledged $20,000 to the group.

In a letter to the trust, the co-chairs of the church’s Bold Initiative Committee framed the future of Southern Pines Primary’s campus as an opportunity to “address systemic racism and economic disparity in our community.”

The trust was recently awarded a $45,000 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation to conduct a facility study, and has also secured a number of private donations.

If the schools do not reach a deal with the trust by Aug. 1, the Southern Pines Primary campus will be sold through a competitive bidding process. So the trust may also be able to acquire the school that way.

Wilkinson and Vincent Gordon, chair of the Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust’s board of directors, are exploring opportunities through the N.C. Historic Preservation Office, U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant program and Golden LEAF Foundation.

“One of the things that’s really amazing is the number of interests that this project represents,” Wilkinson said.

“The top priority category in the preservation world happens to be historical black communities, and why? Because they were ignored forever and ever and suddenly they’re losing them to gentrification.”

A Community Anchor

In the spirit of the original Rosenwald school, the land trust hopes to put the campus to use as a resource for the community surrounding it.

“We want to obtain the Southern Pines Primary School, not only to stop the deterioration of the property but to provide some kind of income and business and entrepreneurial support to people,” Gordon said.

Gordon, a West Southern Pines native, is a retired Army officer and facilities manager for the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We’re looking at a really world-class center that would bring not only some notability and ownership and pride back to the community, but also bring economic development to individuals while at the same time creating something that’s going to help not only African-Americns but the citizens of Moore County,”

Since the 1970s, commercial growth in West Southern Pines has been hindered by zoning. Businesses established before the town put zoning restrictions in place have long since closed, and could not be replaced.

In addition to support for entrepreneurs and home-based businesses, the trust’s leaders envision an arts and culture center that celebrates everything from storytelling to Afro-Caribbean cuisine.

Should the land trust acquire the school campus in January, they’ll begin the long process of developing it into both a destination for black cultural heritage tourism and a service-focused center for individuals seeking the tools to escape poverty.

“I’d love to eventually see counseling and a place where people can seek financial assistance through African-American banking systems where the loans are more equitable and fair, and maybe financial training – to actually build our African-American community so they can do things more independently,” Gordon said.

“Instead of going through gentrification of the community, we have a perfect opportunity to try to lift the community up and make it successful.”

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