On Thursday morning, Mayor Vi Lyles and other city leaders joined Adria Focht, executive director of the Charlotte Museum of History, in front of the Siloam School, a historic school built for black children in the 1920s, to announce that the city will contribute $50,000 toward moving and renovating the building.
The school will be moved from its original location on Mallard Highlands Drive behind the Mallard Glen apartments in University City to the Charlotte Museum of History in east Charlotte. While Focht is still seeking a confirmed appraisal on how much the move and future upkeep will cost, she said it could be between $600,000 to $800,000.
“What we have maintained as part of the fundraising project from the beginning is that we’re not just going to move the structure; we’re not just going to move it and preserve it; we’re not just going to move it, preserve it and put an exhibit in it; we’re going to move it, preserve it, put an exhibit in it and have the funding in place to continue to maintain it for the near future,” she said.
On Thursday morning, Lyles said the Siloam School will serve as an opportunity to bring historical exclusion into conversations about race and opportunity in Charlotte.
“This project is part of the historical and cultural efforts that we’re making that will allow for us to move forward,” she said. “We’ve got great opportunities in Charlotte, but many people were left behind as a result of this kind of governmental policy — segregation Jim Crow laws. A lot of people will say that was a long time ago, and it was, but the messages of those policies stay with us today.”
Also on hand Thursday morning were city council members Greg Phipps and Larken Egleston. The two were the strongest advocates to help fund the Siloam School project. Phipps represents District 4, where the school currently stands, and Egleston represents District 1, where the museum is.
Phipps said the project was a “no-brainer” from the moment the museum’s former executive director Kay Peninger approached him about it.
“I’ve sat through so many city council meetings when other council members become the beneficiaries of designated sites within their district … and we just don’t have that many in District 4. So I’m honored and I’m pleased, but I also am a little conflicted because we’re going to be removing this site from District 4 to District 1,” Phipps said to laughs from those in attendance. “But whatever it takes to preserve this piece of history.”
Egleston, who ran for city council on a platform that included a heavy focus on historic preservation and adaptive reuse, said the move will put the structure in “able hands” to tell the school’s story more effectively.
“There’s undoubtedly hundreds, if not thousands of people a week that drive by this site and don’t know the history of it,” Egleston said. “Having it located at the Charlotte Museum of History will allow that story to be told the right way and [not only] acknowledge some of the wrongs that were done in the past, but a way that we can acknowledge those and move forward in a positive way.”
Though it’s unclear exactly what year the Siloam School opened, attendance budget records exist for the 1922-23 school year. According to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, former students have said the school was built in the early ’20s to replace a log cabin schoolhouse built there earlier in the 20th century.
The Siloam School was built amid a movement to educate freed blacks that began in the 1890s and continued into the 20th century. The Rosenwald Fund, a partnership between Booker T. Washington and Sears Roebuck tycoon Julius Rosenwald, helped fund construction of more than 5,000 schools for African-American children in the South.
Although the Siloam School wasn’t build with Rosenwald funding — it’s believed a nearby church funded its construction — it was designed after the Rosenwald model.
During the Jim Crow era, Mecklenburg County was home to 26 Rosenwald schools, more than any other county in America, according to the Charlotte Museum of History. The Siloam School is one of the last Rosenwald schools still standing in Mecklenburg.
Focht said she hopes the city’s funding will kickstart the Siloam School project after months of “spinning wheels” on what to do next.
“The building now is 100 years old, we don’t want to take 100 years to preserve it, and we do want it to be here in another hundred years, so we really needed this momentum,” Focht said. “The city’s donation more than anything has given us that, and I think this will elevate the project in the public’s eye.”