Neelytown reunion: Gathering is today

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 31, 2012

CHINA GROVE – In the late 1800s, Julius Erastus Neely and his wife, Katie McKenzie Neely, had a vision to establish a school for minority children who were prohibited from attending segregated Rowan County schools.
The family’s descendants are celebrating its annual reunion today at 2 p.m. at Miller’s Chapel AME Zion Church, 114 Miller Chapel Road in Salisbury.
During the reunion, the family plans to talk about the one-room school, which has been dilapidated for years.
The school sits on property owned by the descendants of Julius and Katie Neely in a heavily wooded area just off Neelytown Road.
Some of those descendants have formed the Historic Neely School Foundation Inc., with the hopes of preserving the school building.
Julius Neely founded the school in 1888 and it was operational until 1948.
“It’s a very good idea to leave a legacy of our grandparents who built this school,” said Phyllis Neely Thomside.
The beginning
Julius was an African Methodist Episcopal minister and his wife, Katie, was a domestic worker. The couple had seven children. The grandchildren of Julius and Katie make up the foundation’s board of directors. There are others that serve as executive members of the board.
The grandchildren – Aaron Neely, Gordon Blackwell, Phyllis Neely Thomside, Ruth Neely and Mary Neely Grissom gathered Friday at the building where they were once students. Willie Grissom, husband to Mary, was also at the site.
The group talked about what grade they were when those final lessons were taught.
Thomside said she believed she was either in the third or fourth grade.
In the 1800s, the Neelys funded the school with help from family and friends.
The local superintendent promised a teacher if Julius and Katie could provide a building.
Florence Hall was the first teacher of the Neely School, Grissom said.
Mary Grissom is the foundation’s president/executive director.
The school Julius built with friends and family was not the first one. Those first few others were set up in packhouses and barns of neighbors, Mary said. A packhouse was essentially a warehouse.
According to family history, Julius Neely asked friend, Jim Corriher, to use an old shop as the first school. The room had a fireplace, two windows and a door.
Several years later, Katie Neely’s uncle, Henry McKenzie, moved out of his log house and let the Neelys use the building as a school. The log house also had a fireplace and two windows. Another friend of Julius Neely let him use a building for a school, the family history said.
When the school grew Julius decided to build a bigger school on his own property, which stands there today. Julius had 100 acres at the time he built the school.
Two of Neelys three daughters, Lorena Cassiebelle Neely and Mary Janet Neely Ramseur, attended Livingstone College and later became teachers at the Neely School.
Moving the school
The goal is to move the school building more than 100 yards to a 1.6 acre tract of land located closer to the roadway.
There are about 40 Neely descendants who own portions of the land. The foundation hopes to obtain a quitclaim deed so that property owners could relinquish their rights to the foundation. The deed will be one of the topics the foundation will discuss at the reunion.
The foundation will take on fundraisers to pay for the restoration and move.
Willie Grissom said the one fundraiser the foundation intends to embark on is selling historical bricks to be placed at the school site.
• The future
Once the building is refurbished the foundation hopes it will be a museum. The aim is to one day build on the land to include a basketball court, office space, conference space and picnic shelters where events could be held.
The Foundation board hopes they’ll be able to include artifacts from the school including photos or other memorabilia into the design.
For more information about the Neely School Foundation Inc., contact Ruth Neely Williams at 704-855-9830 or Mary Grissom at 336-767-7355 or write to P.O. Box 784, China Grove NC 28023.