Leadership at William Penn was dominated by the three men who served as principals of the school for nearly its entire history. The New York Friends Meeting, which founded the school (then named the High Point Normal and Industrial Institute) in the early 1890s, appointed white northern educators to lead the school for its first few years.
By 1895, however, they were searching for an African-American educator to take charge. On the recommendation of Booker T. Washington, the Southern Committee of the Quakers offered the position to Alfred J. Griffin, who assumed the job of principal in 1897.
Griffin, who was born in Madison County, North Carolina in 1868, had attended and was teaching at the St. Augustine Collegiate Institute in Raleigh before he came to High Point, and he ran the school until the city took it over in 1923 and remained on the faculty as head of the history department until 1930. Griffin significantly expanded the size of the student body, and brought in highly trained faculty from schools such as Tuskegee and Hampton. His wife Ophelia, who also graduated from St. Augustine, taught Home Economics and remained at the school for forty-two years. He transformed the school into a largely self-sufficient institution, establishing a ninety-acre farm where students learned farming skills that produced all the school’s meals during school hours. Brickmaking and carpentry instructors guided the students in constructing buildings on the farm and on the main campus. Under Griffin’s leadership, the school focused primarily on preparing students to teach and work at trades such as shoe repair and blacksmithing.
When High Point Normal and Industrial became a public school in 1923, the city hired Edward E. Curtright, who had served as the school’s dean and professor of English since 1902 and more recently as its registrar and treasurer, as the new principal. Curtright, who graduated from Atlanta University, focused primarily on improving the institute’s academic rigor and continuing the expansion started by Griffin. Under his tenure, the school received an A rating from the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, and attracted prominent African-American speakers such as James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. With the help of funding provided by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Curtright also oversaw the renovation and expansion of the main school building, which had both structural problems and educational limitations. The renovation improved the quality of the classrooms, and the expansion provided the school with a larger library and gymnasium. It was also under Curtright’s leadership that the school changed its name to William Penn in order to honor its Quaker founders.
After Curtright’s retirement, the city turned to a young educator named Samuel E. Burford to lead William Penn. Burford, who was 28 when he became principal, was a native of Virginia and graduate of Virginia Union and the University of Michigan. He was principal of the Alamance County Training School before he came to High Point, and he remained principal at William Penn until the school closed in 1968. One of Burford’s first initiatives was to reinvigorate the vocational program in order to best serve students whose families could not afford to send them to college during the Depression. At the same time, he added classes in sociology, economics, mathematics, and Negro history to bolster the school’s liberal arts curriculum. According to alumni, these dual tracks remained in place for the rest of Burford’s tenure.
Burford also made changes designed to keep students on campus both during and after school. Despite opposition, he ended the tradition of allowing students to leave the campus for lunch, and expanded the cafeteria’s food options with the help of the PTA. He also developed more after-school activities for the students, expanding the athletic program and supporting the founding of the marching band as well as organizations such as the Crown and Scepter Club, the Student Council and the Hi-Y Club.
When integration came in 1968, Burford left his post of thirty-five years and became the principal of T. Wingate Andrews High, the school built to replace William Penn. He was later elected as the first African-American city council member in High Point. Like his two predecessors Griffin and Curtright, he left a substantial legacy not only at William Penn or in the black community, but for the entire city of High Point.
Samuel E. Burford
Edward E. Curtwright
Alfred J. Griffin