William Penn was more than a high school for High Point’s African-American community; it was also a gathering place. At a time when blacks were prohibited from gathering in many of the city’s public buildings, the school provided a home for everything from arts programs to community and organizational meetings to events featuring nationally renowned speakers and performers.
“Everything that we did centered around William Penn and everything that the community did, they did at William Penn. If you had a community program, it was at William Penn…it was the center of the community.”
-Carlvena Foster, Class of 1968
James Weldon Johnson
Charlotte Hawkins Brown
Evidence of this connection between school and community stretches back to at least the 1920s, when William Penn’s auditorium hosted arts programs cooking demonstrations, and fashion revues. During the 1930s, a number of famous African Americans appeared at the school.
On June 6, 1931, renowned author and musician and former executive Secretary of the NAACP James Weldon Johnson delivered the commencement address at William Penn’s graduation. Principal E.E. Curtright reached out to community members to sponsor this event, as he would in future attempts to bring prominent black figures to the school.
On December 8, 1931, poet Langston Hughes came to High Point and read to all of the black schools, including William Penn.
The next year, again at Curtright’s behest, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, who had established the nearby black preparatory school Palmer Memorial Institute, brought the Sedalia Singers to perform spirituals at William Penn.
Both the program above and the one to the right are Courtesy of the High Point Historical Society, High Point, NC; Gift of Gwyn Davis.
The date of this playbill is unknown, but it probably predates 1927, the year the city renamed the school William Penn and dropped the "Normal" label.
More often than these big events, William Penn provided a meeting place for local organizations. During World War II, the school hosted first-aid courses for the local Negro Civil Defense unit, and the John McClain Post 196 American Legion chapter met every Wednesday night in the cafeteria. The High Point Negro District of the Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scout Troop 8 also met at the school during these years. William Penn’s Parent-Teacher Association hosted many community events at the school, including the Annual Queens Contest and pre-Halloween parties. Beginning in 1942, William Penn hosted a Spring Music Festival for all the black schools in High Point.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the school remained a center for dramatic and musical presentations as well as organizational meetings. Increasingly, it also became a place for discussions of more political topics. In April 1961, the Ministers’ Wives Alliance of High point invited Capus Waynick, the state’s Adjutant General, to speak on campus. In 1966, Samuel C. Jackson, a member of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, came to campus for Career Day.
Throughout the 1960s, the school also served as the launching point for civil rights protests. Although these events were not officially sanctioned by the administration, both the 1960 and 1966 protests began from William Penn at the close of the school day. This pattern confirms both how important William Penn’s students were to the city’s civil rights movement and how important the school was as a gathering place for High Point’s black community.