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Closing and Reopening

In 1968, after 76 years of serving the black community in High Point, William Penn High School closed. The decision by the High Point Board of Education to close William was part of the city’s long-delayed school integration plan. Though the U.S. Supreme Court had required school desegregation in 1954 in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and though token integration had begun in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the process was not completed in High Point until 1970. As part of that process, the Board decided to build a new high school, T. Wingate Andrews, and to integrate the student bodies there and at High Point High School rather than at William Penn. Dot Kearns, a member of the High Point board of education from 1972 to 1982, explained the reasons for this decision:

The black community of High Point was dismayed and angered by this decision, but an organized opposition to the move does not seem to have emerged. Perhaps the reason for this lack of opposition was the fact that the board, after initially refusing to do so, named Samuel Burford as the first principal at Andrews High School. They also moved several William Penn teachers, including band director J.Y. Bell and basketball coach George Foree, into the same positions at the new school (football coach James Atkinson was named an assistant on the Andrews team).

“One, it [William Penn] was not a large school to encompass a lot of students, but basically the reason was the board knew the white community would not likely send students into the black community willingly. There needed to be another high school to accommodate the full numbers, and so the decision was made to build Andrews High School, and then divide the community so that black and white students went to what was then High Point High School, now known as High Point Central High School, and Andrews High School. It was not a time that anybody, really, relished at the time because the people who went to High Point High School loved it and they wanted to be there. The people who went to William Penn High School loved it.”

After the closure, the city tried using the building for an extended day program (where students could work during the day and attend school at night), a business incubator, and a facility for the Carl Chavis YMCA. None of these programs lasted. The city of High Point didn’t have the funds to keep the building in use, and it became a hazard to the community, with vandals breaking in, smashing windows, covering it with graffiti, and stealing its copper wiring. Homeless people slept in the building. Washington Street, where the school had been a centerpiece of the community, also suffered from integration and broader economic decline, with many business closing or moving away.

In the late 1970s, the board voted to have the building demolished at a cost of 50,000 dollars. However, as the demolition neared, a group of black and white High Pointers decided to try to save the building. One member of that group, Anne Andrews, was on the Guilford County Joint Historic Properties Commission, and she requested that an inspector from the State Department of Archives in Raleigh examine the building. The inspector determined that the building was structurally sound and that because of its architecture and its history, it belonged on the National Register of Historic Places. The group submitted an application for that status, and began raising money to repair the building. The roof, cupola, and most of the windows needed to be replaced, and at the time the city was renovating another historic building. In 1981, the group became a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, and black and white communities went to work fundraising. They held hot dog dinners and bake sales, solicited donations big and small, and over many years accumulated about $400,000 dollars to renovate the building.

With the renovations complete, the building offered new possibilities for the city, and in 2003, the Guilford County Board of Education made it the home of a new magnet high school for the arts. After an extended debate, the Board decided to name it the Penn-Griffin School for the Arts. The school has won accolades for its arts programs, and ranks as one of the highest scoring schools in the state. It honors its William Penn heritage through a history room filled with artifacts from the earlier school, and in 2016, students and instructors at the school painted a mural in the lobby to honor the twenty-six high school students (twenty-four from William Penn) who led the High Point sit-ins in 1960.

National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form

Vacant William Penn building surrounded by fence

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