Alumni anticipate a museum

Published 9:31 pm Monday, July 30, 2012

An air of excitement permeated the banquet room at one particular class reunion on Saturday.

About 60 alumni from the Nansemond County Training School and Southwestern High School were celebrating their first school reunion since things began looking up for their quest to turn their old school into a museum and community center.

The old Nansemond County Training School building, currently used for storage, sits beside Southwestern, which now is an elementary school. But they haven’t been able to do anything with the building because of the elementary school right next door.


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So they waited for the school division to vacate Southwestern and move into a planned replacement school. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, earlier this month, the school division purchased property for a new school to replace the aging Southwestern. Construction is expected to take two years.

“We’re excited,” said Enoch C. Copeland, a School Board member and a 1953 alumnus of Nansemond County Training School. “2014 can’t come fast enough.”

The school grew out of Little Fork School on the estate of William Jackson Copeland. The original school was destroyed by fire. Its replacement was built in 1924 and became known as Nansemond County Training School.

It was the first public high school in Nansemond County for blacks and was constructed using $1,500 from the Rosenwald Fund, established by Julius Rosenwald, owner of Sears, Roebuck and Co., to help build schools for blacks in the rural South. It also used $11,500 in public money and $5,000 donated by local black families.

The first and longest-serving principal, Hannibal E. Howell, worked there for 42 years. In 1956, the new building (now Southwestern Elementary School) was completed, and the name was changed to Southwestern High School in 1964. Other principals throughout the years included Benjamin Davis, John Monroe, Johnnie E. Sharpe and David Fulton.

The school closed in 1970. Through its 40-year history, the school graduated 784 students.

The 60 or so who attended Saturday’s event took a tour of the building before convening at the Hilton Garden Inn for dinner.

Wardell Baker, a 1952 graduate and president of the Nansemond County Training School Heritage Center, said the group hopes construction of the new school will be completed on time so that work can begin on the old building.

“What we’d like to do is turn the school into a museum,” Baker said.

The group plans one classroom as a museum, as well as installing a kitchen and multi-purpose room. But some fundraising is needed to make it happen, and it might as well start now, Baker said.

“What I’m trying to do is energize the people,” he said. “With funds available, we will have a little leverage.”

Jean Copeland, class of 1958, said the group has ensured the City Council and School Board already knows its desires.

“We look forward to construction,” she said. “Things are really happening now. When I ride by the site, I just get excited.”