Black History of CharlotteEducationNews & Opinion

Second Ward High School Celebrates a Century of Legacy

Preserving the spirit of Charlotte's vanished community

A photo of women alumni of Second Ward High School celebrating and cheering for the school's gym reopening.
Celebration of Second Ward Gym reopening. (All photos courtesy of Second Ward High School Alumni Assoc.)

They come from all over the country, says Arthur Griffin, to return to their home.

It’s five days before a centennial celebration of Second Ward High School, Charlotte’s first public high school for Black students. Griffin, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) Board of Education member, current Mecklenburg County Commissioner and 1966 Second Ward High School graduate, tells me about some the people who were eager to attend a banquet that held on Sept. 1 at the Sheraton Charlotte on South McDowell Street.

The banquet followed a community-wide Tiger Day festival on July 15 at Second Ward High School’s former gymnasium. Located on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the gym is the only remaining facility left of Second Ward High School.

“I talked to a 1956 graduate who is coming to Charlotte,” says Griffith, who has served as president of the Second Ward High School National Alumni Foundation, Inc. since October 2022.

“[She’s] 80-something years old [and] coming back to her high school reunion,” said Griffin, himself 75 years old. “She called me a baby.”

Alumni from chapters in Washington, Maryland and New York were expected to attend the centennial celebrations in September.

Opened as Colored High School in 1923, decades before public school integration was even in sight, the institution was soon renamed Second Ward High School. Located in Brooklyn, Second Ward High School was a beacon at the heart of Charlotte’s now-vanished Black community — a powerful symbol that Black people could strive and thrive in the face of racism in the Jim Crow South.

The school was closed in 1969 and subsequently demolished along with most of Brooklyn, ostensibly in the name of so-called urban renewal and desegregation. Somehow spared from the bulldozers, the Second Ward High School gymnasium was designated a historic landmark in 2008, and the building is now one of Mecklenburg County’s Park and Recreation facilities.

While most of the school is gone, the spirit of Second Ward High School still resonates throughout Charlotte’s Black community as alumni celebrate its 100th anniversary, which holds powerful memories for the students and teachers who taught, learned, forged lifelong friendships and dared to dream there.

“You can’t separate Second Ward and Brooklyn,” says retired educator and 1955 grad Grace Hoey. “Second Ward was there strong, right in our face every day.”

“Second Ward High School made us believe we could do anything when we graduated,” Griffin says. “[It] provided the characteristics we embrace today, a legacy of grit, resilience, innovation and high standards.”

“Second Ward was an institution that provided people who believed in and were involved in community. They understood the important of the work ethic and honesty,” adds former educator and 1954 graduate William Harris. “It was an institution that understood that you play the hand that’s dealt.”

From segregation to community resilience

The hand Griffin, Hoey and Harris were dealt was similar to the cards held by their fellow residents in Brooklyn and nearby Black neighborhoods, preparing for life at a segregated school that was separate from white society and supposedly equal.

Second Ward High School opened at the same time as a then-new white institution, Central High School, which was located in Elizabeth and still stands today as part of Central Piedmont Community College’s Uptown campus.

“Black schools and white schools in the city had the same school colors,” Griffin says. “Central High’s were blue and white, [as were] Second Ward’s.”

Griffin maintains the schematic was intentional. When Central High School gave Second Ward High School their hand-me-down band and football uniforms, the colors didn’t need to be changed.

Growing up in Brooklyn and attending Myers Street Elementary School, Hoey, like most of her peers, looked forward to the day she would attend Second Ward High School.

“We were involved with Second Ward and knew about Second Ward from elementary school,” Hoey says. “Second Ward is a part of me.”

A black and white photo of Second Ward High School's front door exterior.
Second Ward High School was opened in 1926 and closed in 1969.

“Second Ward was in your blood,” says Griffin, who grew up in the lower part of Charlotte’s First Ward, a mostly Black neighborhood at the time. In those days, Second Ward High School taught grades 7 through 12, so Griffin attended the school from 1960 to 1966.

Likewise, Hoey started at Second Ward High School in 7th grade, attending from 1949 to 1955. Hoey says she formed lifelong friendships there, and is effusive in her praise for the school’s teachers.

“I wish that the students today had those teachers,” says the former educator whose resume includes teaching positions in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Florence, South Carolina, and in the state Department of Public Instruction in Raleigh. “Those teachers were like family to us. They were respectful and kind, but they were also firm.”

After earning an education degree at Johnson C. Smith University, Hoey completed her student teaching at Second Ward under the supervision of her Second Ward High School social studies teacher Queen Green.

“At first it was frightening,” Hoey says, “but she made sure that I remembered all that she had taught me.”

“I think of Second Ward High School as a citadel of learning,” Harris says.

A retired educator like Hoey, Harris taught at Myers Street Elementary School before serving six years as an elementary school principal in CMS then working at Educational Testing Services in Princeton, New Jersey.

Harris also remembers remarkable teachers at Second Ward High School, citing her chemistry teacher Mr. Levi.

“He [said he] expected us to know 100 chemical elements by the next day. I don’t think he really expected us to know them, but he wanted to make a point that those symbols were critical to understanding chemistry and being a good student.”

Harris’ band teacher, L. Augustus Page, taught students the importance of learning to play multiple instruments instead of just one. As a result, Harris mastered clarinet, saxophone and piano.

“Mr. Jones taught journalism and Mrs. Wilson taught English,” Harris recalls. “Together, they suggested that one needs to learn how to speak and how to write. Those two things will take you far in life.”

Griffin calls the Second Ward High School teachers extraordinary.

“They wanted to make sure that we could compete no matter where we landed,” Griffin says. “Because [the country] was segregated, they knew that we had to be twice as good.”

Griffin says he’ll never forget Miss Lucile McKay, his 7th grade language arts teacher.

“She was probably 4 foot 3 [inches] tall, and she would bring smoke in the classroom.”

Griffin recalls McKay calling him up to the blackboard every day to diagram sentences.

“That’s a small snippet of the standards’ of excellence that each and every one of my teachers provided for us,” Griffin says. “They knew that they were planting a seed of a shady tree that they would never sit under, but they wanted to make sure that we were able to sit under that tree once we matriculated and went through life.”

In its 46 years as a brick-and-mortar institution, Second Ward High School hosted luminaries like Jackie Robinson and George Washington Carver. Illustrious graduates include Frederick Douglas Alexander, the first African American to serve on Charlotte’s City Council since reconstruction. Alexander graduated in 1926. Duke University Law professor James Coleman graduated from Second Ward High School in 1965. Lt. Fred Lorenzo Brewer Jr. graduated from Second Ward in 1938. One of the Tuskegee Airmen, Lt. Brewer and his fighter plane disappeared in 1944 while on a mission to escort 15th Army Air Force bombers over Germany.

Second Ward High School’s lasting impact

The seemingly secretive and rushed decision to demolish Second Ward High School — along with Brooklyn —  caught many by surprise, Griffin says.

“Because [of the] civil rights [movement] … the government was acting like they wanted to move towards a more equitable environment,” Griffin says.

A 1967 plan called for Second Ward to be renovated and renamed.

“For my last years in high school, all we were talking about was the new Second Ward High School. We went as far as having a contest to name the new school,” Griffin says.

Although a final name of Metropolitan High School had been chosen by local government, it would never be used. In 1969, Charlotte’s school board voted without notice to close Second Ward High School.

“It was not anticipated,” Griffin says. “It was shocking.”

“City fathers talked about urban renewal, but it was urban removal.” Harris says. “[They] promised that Second Ward would be rebuilt, and the city fathers reneged on that promise.”

The demolition of Second Ward High School took place among a much wider swath of destruction.

“We hear about Brooklyn, but they also tore down First Ward,” Griffin says. “I lived in a shotgun house in First Ward. They tore that down and moved me to public housing.”

Second Ward High School students were bussed to previously all-white schools to achieve racial integration.

“They were scattered to the winds,” Griffin says. “They were nomads, like the Israelites out in the middle of nowhere trying to find their home.”

As for Brooklyn, everything was soon gone — churches, corner shops, doctor’s offices and schools.

“I don’t think we recovered from losing our homeland,” says Griffin.

Learn more: How Redlining, Blockbusting and ‘Urban Renewal’ Victimized a Community

Hoey remembers walking where Brooklyn once stood, trying to find where her house used to be.

“Brooklyn was the foundation for so many people, a community of strong businesses,” Hoey says. “Everybody was proud to be a member of the community. When I had to leave Brooklyn, it broke my heart.”

Yet out of the ashes, a phoenix emerged in the form of the Second Ward High School National Alumni Foundation.

A photo of Second Ward High School's sign stating "Site of the first public high school for Blacks in Charlotte-Mecklenburg" above a green bush.
A sign in front of the Second Ward High School gym, the only facility remaining from the school.

“The school’s last graduating class was in 1969,” Griffin says. “In 1973, just 4 years after the last class, a group of graduates got together to say, ‘We need to continue this legacy.’”

Griffin points out that 2023 is the 100th anniversary of Second Ward High School’s opening, but it is also the 50th anniversary of the founding of the alumni foundation. Since Labor Day weekend of 1980, the foundation has held a Second Ward High School reunion every year except for 2020 and 2021, says Griffin.

“For 43 years we have held a national reunion to recognize, reflect and continue the legacy of Second Ward High School,” Griffin says.

The foundation has established the Second Ward Alumni House as an all-volunteer staffed interpretive museum, where the public can see artifacts from Second Ward High School.

The foundation has also organized the Second Ward High School centennial celebrations, and does so much more, Hoey says.

“We have worked with students,” says Hoey, who along with Harris and Griffin is a dues-paying member of the foundation. “We’ve done community outreach. We’ve tutored students. We have worked with social services, and with people in assisted living.”

The foundation also offers an annual scholarship and awards for area high school seniors.

All of this, says Hoey, is part of the foundation’s mission to keep the legacy of Second Ward High School alive.

Harris points out, however, that while the foundation is making every attempt to keep the spirit of Second Ward High School relevant, it’s becoming an increasingly difficult task as aging alumni are not being replaced by younger members.

“What we do is to share with this generation and future generations what excellence, grit, resilience and innovation looks like, with the hope that our story will inspire and motivate those generations coming after us,” he says. “As we’re aging out, we’re trying to find legacies, children of graduates, who are interested in carrying on that story.”

“We’re working so that Second Ward will not be forgotten,” says Hoey.

Even as a new Second Ward High School will be voted on as part of a 2.5-billion CMS bond referendum in November, keeping the legacy of the old Second Ward High School current and compelling remains the purpose of the foundation. The school building may be torn down, but the ideals, values and hope for the future embodied by Second Ward High School’s story still exerts a powerful hold on the imagination.

“Promises might have been broken, but Second Ward will never be broken,” Hoey says.

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