High Point Normal and Industrial School
1891 to 1927
After emancipation, one of the top priorities for freed slaves was education. However, most southern states at this time were reluctant to provide public schooling, and particularly secondary education, for black Americans. The first schools for black students in High Point opened in 1868 with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and those that remained open did so through a combination of philanthropy, the contributions of black families, and a small amount of state funding. The city’s first high school for blacks opened in 1892, when the New York Meeting of the Society of Friends (better known as the Quakers) moved their school from Asheboro into the building known as Solomon Blair’s school. The Quakers relocated their institution to High Point because it had a larger African-American population, and because the city was centrally located along the state’s railroad lines. This school, the High Point Normal and Industrial Institute, later became known as William Penn High School to honor its Quaker founders.
High Point Normal and Industrial followed an instructional model that was common for black schools of the time, combining the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic with vocational training that provided students with the skills they needed to earn a living for themselves and their families. The Institute’s first principal was W. Elmer Meade, and the other instructor was Anna Eliza Lofton, who had been working in Solomon Blair’s school. The first year the school enrolled 193 students, about a quarter of them adults, in the two-room schoolhouse, so one of the first priorities was to find more space for instruction. Meade left abruptly during the first year to take a position up north, and his replacement was Frank H. Clark, who remained at the school until 1898. During Clark’s tenure, the Quakers purchased a five-acre lot to build a new schoolhouse on the site that William Penn inhabited for the rest of its history (and the current site of Penn-Griffin School for the Arts).
Solomon Blair's School Solomon Blair
Once the initial building on that site was completed in 1895, the New York Meeting turned its attention toward finding a long-term African-American leader for its institution. Since the school’s curriculum was inspired by the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the Friends turned to Booker T. Washington, the founder and head of that school, for a recommendation. Washington and others recommended Alfred J. Griffin, a young graduate of St. Augustine College in Raleigh, and in 1897 Griffin took over as principal, a post he held until 1923.
Alfred J. Griffin
Griffin’s main objective during his tenure was to make the school a stable, self-sufficient institution. The New York Meeting bought the school an eighty-acre farm where instructors taught students the latest techniques in agriculture, and students in brickmaking, masonry, and carpentry classes constructed the buildings on the farm and the main campus. Enrollment steadily increased at the school up until World War I, and even a devastating fire that completely destroyed the main school building in 1909 did not slow that growth. Students and their instructors put their skills to use to replace the lost structures. By 1916, enrollment reached 591 students.
Students working on building a house
Class took place in the basement of Congdon Hall
Students working on building a house
The school’s enrollment decreased during World War I, and by the early 1920s, the New York Meeting had accumulated a debt on the school that required it to sell some of its land. In part because of this debt, the city took over control of the school in 1923, with the agreement that it had to maintain a school on the site. By that time, the school had instructed over eight thousand students in its three-decade history. When the Institute became part of the public school system, Griffin resigned as principal, though he stayed on as chair of the history department until 1930. E.E. Curtright, a graduate of Atlanta University and teacher at the school since 1902, took over as principal. After a brief period as the High Point Normal School, the city renamed the institution William Penn High School in 1927.