Huntersville torn by school plan
Published 11:30 pm Friday, February 21, 2014
Some residents of the Huntersville neighborhood are making a last-minute plea to save a former school building in the neighborhood, but the new owners say they will demolish the building to build three new homes in its place.
Sheila Ward Scott was born and raised in the neighborhood and attended the Joseph Gibson School from 1960 to ’66, when she began attending Florence Bowser because the Huntersville school only went to the sixth grade.
She has warm memories of the school, from its potbelly stove to the milkman who always made sure to deliver some chocolate milk along with the regular.
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“It probably only had four rooms, but we learned out there,” she said, adding that her grandmother and mother also attended there. “That school was a good school.”
Maurice Ward, who also attended there, said he often tells people that “everything I know, I learned in Huntersville at that school.”
“The teachers were excellent,” he added. “They cared about each student. I’m just proud of the school.”
It was one of about 5,000 schools built throughout the rural South between 1913 and 1932 by the Rosenwald Rural School Building Program, funded by Sears, Roebuck & Co. executive Julius Rosenwald.
In the time of segregation, the fund provided seed money for simple but safe schools where black children could learn. Both black and white members of each community were also expected to contribute funds.
The Huntersville school was named for its first principal, Joseph S. Gibson, and included classroom space for four teachers. It was built in 1931, making it one of the last built through the Rosenwald Fund.
It was one of about a dozen Rosenwald schools in the former Nansemond County, now the city of Suffolk. Some have been demolished, but others have been renovated or have groups of alumni trying to raise money to save them.
Scott, who went on to become a teacher, wants to see the school saved and turned into a recreation center for the children in the community.
“I hate to see it be torn down,” she said. “I know it will take a lot of money, but I think it’s worth it.”
But the new owners, Custom Homes of Virginia’s Kenton McClung and Brian Simon, say they believe they are doing something good for the community by building new homes.
The building has been condemned by the city, and a sign on the building says it is a threat to life and property. Until McClung and Simon bought it, the property taxes had been unpaid since 2009, according to the city treasurer’s office. McClung said the structure had been slated for auction and possible demolition.
“It’s been more of an area to cause trouble in the community,” McClung said. “We thought we were bettering the community. There is a heart behind it.”
They said they got positive reception when they bought a nearby property with an old Masonic lodge, demolished it and built a new home. Projects they have done in Pughsville also have been received well, they said. They expected similar response with this new project and have been surprised by the reaction, McClung said.
“We really do take pride in doing this,” he said.
McClung said they have offered to hold a “farewell ceremony” for the school, to allow alumni to take mementos from inside and to provide a place to install a historical marker and donate money for the sign.
But they’re still committed to their original vision, he said, adding he believes it will raise property values in the entire neighborhood.
Members of the community say they feel blindsided by the plans. They thought the building was included in city plans for renovation and had been waiting patiently for that to happen.
Local resident Malachai Pork said the community had been asking for something to be done with the school before other projects that are now completed — such as the renovation of Suffolk High School to become the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts — were even on the radar.
Indeed, renovation of the old school was included in the Huntersville Initiatives Plan in 2004 as one of several initiatives desired by the community, but it and other neighborhood plans developed by city consultants are only recommendations. The plan suggested turning the old school into a senior center with a surrounding park.
Councilman Lue Ward, a native of the community whose grandmother attended the Gibson school, spoke out about it during Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
“People say you can’t have it all, but I don’t think Huntersville never got it all,” Ward said. “This one community, I feel, has been overlooked for years. I feel that school, that community, was let down.”
He wanted to know what the city can do now and how the project “vanished” from city plans.
But City Attorney Helivi Holland said the public hasn’t owned the school since 1962, when the Nansemond County School Board sold it to a private owner.
“It’s always been private property, so the city has never been able to demand that anyone do anything particular to that property,” Holland said.
Its historic designation “does not alleviate the requirement of the city as it relates to public safety,” she added. “A property that is historic can still be torn down if nothing is done to render it safe.”
Mayor Linda T. Johnson said she cares about the community but said the city was unable to find the out-of-state owner for several years.
“I don’t want anybody to leave here thinking that No. 1, we don’t care, and No. (2), we dropped the ball,” she said. “I don’t want anybody to say it just got thrown off the screen, because that’s not what happened.”
Civic league president Gerri Norman said the 90 or so children who live in the community would benefit from a recreation facility.
“It’s my duty to address the concerns of the future of the school,” she said.