September 16, 2017

Winston-Salem Honors Another Historical Site That It Failed To Preserve

This afternoon a local historic marker commemorating the 14th Street School was unveiled at 1215 N. Cameron Ave. It’s a warm September day, perfect weather for such a happy occasion.

The 14th Street School produced many proud graduates that went on to do many fine things in the community and beyond. Honoring the 14th School is in the same tradition as honoring the African School at Happy Hill, which was honored in May of this year.

Both former schools demonstrate the value that Winston’s African American communities have historically placed on education.

But as so often before in Winston, this is a bittersweet occasion. The City and County are once again honoring something that no longer exists; a school that was built in 1922, integrated in 1970, closed in 1973 and then demolished in 1977.

The former 14th Street School is part of a larger story in Winston. The city has done a much better job of preserving white neighborhoods than preserving black neighborhoods.

Local preservationist Langdon Oppermann said it best, “an unfortunate but undeniable pattern in the city’s black neighborhoods was their destruction.”

The 14th Street School has been gone for decades. The former Atkins High School is still standing just a stone’s throw away. But today it is somewhat diminished in stature, housing Winston-Salem Prep while Atkins High School is in a large, modern building on Old Greensboro Road.

Two years ago an impressive mural was painted on the side of the 14th Street Discount Store at the corner of 14th Street and Cameron Avenue. The mural chronicles the various accomplishments of Winston’s African American Community. (My only complaint with it is that Winston’s more radical black history isn’t included in the mural)

But the fact that it’s on the side of a convenience store is a hint that Winston’s African American Communities don’t have the businesses and institutions that other parts of the city take for granted. The mural inadvertently highlights the fact that even today Winston-Salem is a separate and unequal city.

14th Street and other majority-minority neighborhoods in Winston didn’t fall behind the city’s predominantly white neighborhoods by choice. It was the government policies on the local, state, and national level that codified Jim Crow segregation in Winston and are most responsible for its continued existence.

Winston first segregated its city blocks, designating them to be either “black” or “white” blocks in which the two could not mix in 1912. Later in the 1950s when the city needed to place housing projects somewhere in the city, they chose to put them in African American neighborhoods, destroying the existing housing stock without concern for its quality (Oppermann, pg 17).

As the city needed modern roads, those roads were built through black neighborhoods. Urban Redevelopment in the 1960s also greatly wounded the vibrancy of Winston’s black communities.

Urban Redevelopment or “Negro Removal” as some have called it was carried out on a massive scale. Again, to quote, Langdon Oppermann, “in the early 1960s over 600 acres of houses were razed and 4,000 families were moved out of their homes, some into federal housing.”

The amount of wealth that Urban Redevelopment took out of Winston’s African American communities is hard for us to fully comprehend today. Some of the best property in Winston was dispossessed from African Americans decades ago. The former Belews Street and the Depot Street Neighborhoods, are just two examples.

As we honor the proud accomplishment’s that Winston’s African American community achieved in the past, we must do more. We must demand active policies to remedy the harm that has been done to East Winston.

Government policies enacted near the end of Jim Crow segregation are in large part why Winston is so segregated and unequal today. It will take concerted government action to make East Winston whole again.

Remember, it wasn’t easy to turn Downtown Winston around. It took millions of dollars and over a decade to achieve. Revitalizing East Winston (not gentrifying it) might take the same about of time and resources, but it must be done.

 

Sources: Winston-Salem’s African-American Neighborhoods: 1870-1950, Preliminary Planning Report 1993, Langdon E. Oppermann.

 

 

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