The renovations on the historic McCray School, which began on May 1, are coming along quickly and nearing completion as the summer winds down.
The McCray School, located off Highway 62 in Pleasant Grove, is an early 20th century schoolhouse used by local African American students until 1951. In the 1980s, the building was severely damaged by a storm. The 900-square-foot building was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1986.
Now, the outside of the schoolhouse looks like it would’ve after it was built more than a century ago. Fresh, white paint; a refinished porch; a new metal roof; new boards replacing dilapidated ones – just to name a few improvements. Tuesday, the windows were repaired, leaving only the inside to be renovated.
Until just recently, the school sat largely forgotten about by Alamance County and the Alamance Burlington School System (ABSS). But, roughly 14 years ago, when ABSS Board of Education member Patsy Simpson was elected, the McCray School came back into focus.
“I had gone to a school board conference and they had a presentation on the Rosenwald schools, and how they were emphasizing that the boards of education preserve any Rosenwald schools that might still be in the county,” Simpson said. “So, that perked my interest about this particular school.”
Simpson noted that she and the late Janet Sellars, the founder of Burlington’s African American Cultural Arts and History Center, had many conversations and mutual dreams of restoring the school one day. None of that became a reality until Dale Aaron and his wife got involved.
Dale Aaron is the owner of Callands Historical Restoration, a 501c(3) nonprofit focused on restoring old historic properties with an emphasis on maintaining a property’s originality.
Aaron’s wife taught at Pleasant Grove Elementary School around 25 years ago. During that time, teachers would, periodically, take students over to the McCray School for lessons. When the Aarons saw the state the school had fallen into, they reached out to ABSS about renovating it.
Plans for the renovations were made back in February, with the improvements beginning in late spring. Now, thanks largely to the community's help, the dream for a restored and usable McCray School is close to a reality.
Since May 1, multiple groups have volunteered to work on the school. Some of those groups are listed as follows: some ABSS resource officers and Alamance County deputies, the Budd Group, the Burlington Alamance Association of Realtors and Samet Corporation.
Each of these groups worked on the school over the summer, making much of the progress that has been made on the school. Aaron and Simpson have been blown away by the community’s support.
“One of the parts of our strategic plan for the school system is community involvement, and this is a prime example of using community partners to get something done,” Simpson said. “ABSS, to my knowledge, we have not spent a dime on this project – this is all through fundraising efforts, word of mouth, presentations.”
Aaron confirmed no ABSS funds have been used in the renovations, and echoed Simpson’s sentiment, “I'm going to use the word blessed, I don't know another word to use, [blessed] for contributions of labor, for support financially and emotionally.”
For both Aaron and Simpson, keeping the original look and character of the schoolhouse is a pivotal part of these renovations.
“It tells a history, and it tells a story – each time that I walk here I can just imagine, at one point, they had 50 some students in this school,” Simpson said. “You look at this 900 square feet, and you wonder how in the world did they do that? You know the old saying, ‘Don't forget what happened in the past.’ We need to preserve it to, basically, show how strong we are here in Alamance County, particularly in the school system, as one of the few who wants to truly preserve and allow our children to be able to come here and experience what it might have been like in 1916.”
That’s why the ‘expert’ – Aaron – was brought in, Simpson added.
“Every building has a story, and this one has an untold story,” Aaron said. “We have an opportunity, now, to tell that story and let, as Patsy said, our children understand because it's so far-fetched from where we are today with air conditioning and nice desks and computers.”
ABSS wants the renovated McCray School to be “a living, breathing museum” where children can touch and see and experience what it was like to go to school as a rural child in the early 20th century.
Both Aaron and Simpson hope the school will be used as a field trip for ABSS students, as well as for a field trip destination for students throughout North Carolina. Simpson said there’s a possibility the African American Cultural Arts and History Center will play a role in coordination of future field trips to the school.
Aaron expects the schoolhouse renovation, inside and out, to be completed by the end of September, but certainly no later than the middle of October. ABSS has an open house planned for when the improvements are complete.