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CCSD Will Take Another Look at Saving Historic Black School Building

Supporters of saving a schoolhouse off West Broad Street gathered with signs representing the decades it’s existed. Credit: Blake Aued

Clarke County School District Superintendent Xernona Thomas said that she would take another look at plans for the long-vacant West Broad School campus shortly after a rally to save a historic school building on the property.

“We were already moving forward to see what we can do to take the appropriate actions on that property,” Thomas said at the Board of Education’s Mar. 13 meeting.

Earlier that evening, about 80 people gathered at nearby Hill Chapel Baptist Church, then walked to the H.T. Edwards building where the school board meets—another segregation-era facility—and to the West Broad campus to express their support for saving a 65-year-old building facing Campbell Lane that’s slated for demolition. CCSD’s current plans call for renovating a 1938 Minor Street building but tearing down two others to make way for new pre-K classrooms.

The rally was part of an ongoing campaign to save the Campbell Lane building mounted by preservation group Historic Athens. The building is one of the few remaining examples of schoolhouses built during the 16-year “equalization era” between Brown v. Board of Education and full integration, when white-run Southern school systems sought to fend off the Supreme Court order by pouring money into better facilities for Black students in a failed attempt to prove they could be separate but equal.

Ken Dious, a Historic Athens trustee who attended the West Broad School in the 1950s, said the building should be saved, and as a lawyer who counts construction firms among his clients, he believes it can be. “I see no reason why this building should be torn down,” Dious said.

Another Historic Athens trustee, Fred Smith Sr., said such schools were a source of pride in the Black community. “For the first time, we had nice, brick modern-looking buildings,” he said.

Smith called the Campbell Lane building a symbol of the struggle for equality and said it deserves the same treatment as formerly all-white schools that CCSD restored. “I love what they did with Chase School,” he said. “I love what they did with Barrow School. Now we want that same kind of attention.”

Earlier this month, Barbara Black, an Atlanta-based architect who specializes in historic preservation, resigned from the project, saying that neither CCSD nor the main architectural firm, Lindsay Pope Brayfield, had consulted her on major decisions like whether to preserve the Campbell Lane building. Both LPB architects and John Gilbreath, CCSD’s director of SPLOST projects, have said the building is unsalvageable—something local historic preservation architect Joe Smith has denied. Thomas said the district would hire someone else to take a second look.

Thomas also said she remains committed to turning the site into an early learning center. “Knowing our population and demographics, we have to start with early learning, because our kids start school already behind,” she said. Historic Athens Executive Director Tommy Valentine emphasized at the rally that the group supports early learning, but believes the Campbell Lane building can be converted for that use.

Valentine also said that he believes the project’s tight deadline of Mar. 1 is an artificial one, not imposed by the U.S. Department of Education as a requirement of a $3.9 million grant. Thomas pushed back against that idea. “We have been very honest about our timeline,” she said. The DOE could grant a short extension due to the pandemic, and “I am going to plead our case with them next week,” she added.

The school board is now meeting in person, but the public is not allowed to attend. At the BOE meeting, school board members read an hour’s worth of public comments mainly related to saving the building. Thomas said she has also been “bombarded” with calls and emails. But, “I will always err on the side of children,” she said.

Even when the pandemic ends and meetings are open again, it could be harder for citizens to give input. The board is considering a new policy limiting public comment to 45 minutes and requiring speakers to sign up 24 hours in advance, rather than by 4 p.m. the day of the meeting.