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Historic Landmarks Commission one of several boards with open seats, opportunity to add diversity

SALISBURY — The Rowan County Historic Landmarks Commission has designated seven properties in the county as historic landmarks, but perhaps none have been more important than the Neely School.

Built by Julius Neely in 1908 in a stretch of woods near China Grove, the Neely School served as a safe place for African-American children to attend school for several decades. In the past couple decades, a group of his descendants led an effort to move the school to a clearing near Neelytown Road and restore the building to its original condition.

The school was officially designated as a Rowan County Historic Landmark in 2017 when a motion was unanimously passed by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. At the time, it was the fifth property to receive historic landmark status from the county.

“Of all the properties we’ve identified so far, that’s probably one of the most significant with regards to knowing history,” said Alfred Wilson, chair of the Historic Landmarks Commission. “Especially in a time with Black Lives Matter, when we’re thinking about the struggles Black people have had to overcome, that is a significant historical landmark.”

Being named a historic landmark brought more attention to the property, said Mary Grissom, the granddaughter of Julius Neely and the president and executive director of the Historic Neely School Foundation.

“Some people didn’t know until they heard about the landmark,” Grissom said. “Then they came. They wanted to come and see it.”

In recent years, an informational walking trail has been added around the school and Grissom said that construction is nearing completion on a community building that will serve as a site for field trips and events.

Helping to preserve and promote historic properties outside of the city of Salisbury limits is the main function of the Historic Landmarks Commission, which is one of 76 county advisory boards. The seven-person board prepares and submits historic landmark applications to the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office in Raleigh. Once the application is approved in Raleigh, it goes before the Rowan County Board of Commissioners for final approval.

The Historic Landmarks Commission has now helped seven properties earn historic landmark status. Neely School stands out in the mind of Karen Lilly-Bowyer, who served on the commission from 2016-2019. 

Lilly-Bowyer said that the Neely School was a “very important piece” for the commission to preserve.

“It, itself, brought some diversity to what we were doing,” Lilly-Bowyer said.

The Neely School was the first Rowan County landmark with major historical significance to the African-American community.

Preserving African-American history in Rowan County is a priority for the Historic Landmarks Commission, Wilson said. In order to do that, he said that the board needs to increase its own diversity.

“The history of (this) place is important to all of us and it’s a diverse history and we need to recognize that and it deserves recognition,” Wilson said. “But it takes somebody that knows that history to identify the places and structures or what have you so we can protect them.”

Increasing representation among the county’s 76 advisory boards is something that the Community Fusion Coalition, a collaboration of social justice oriented groups in the local area, is pushing for.

At the Rowan County Board of Commissioners meeting on March 1, Kia Whittlesey read a letter that the Community Fusion Coalition sent to commissioners, Salisbury council members and Mayor Karen Alexander. 

The letter specifically asks leaders to appoint more people of color to boards and committees. It also urged leadersto invite and select people who will broaden our view and awareness of the greater community and contribute.” 

The Rowan County Board of Commissioners is in many cases responsible for appointing applicants to county advisory boards. However, state statutes require some board positions to be filled by individuals with certain qualifications, such as the “physician” seat on the Board of Health. Any “at large” board seat can filled by a member of the general public.

Seats on some advisory boards are appointed by multiple municipalities. The three-member ABC Board consists of one appoint from the board of commissioners, one from the city of Salisbury and the third from the Kannapolis City Council. Any “at large” board seat can filled by a member of the general public.

Per a resolution adopted by commissioners, board members can only serve for two consecutive terms before having to take a year off, unless an exception is granted.

Two days after Whittlesey spoke during the meeting, Commissioner Judy Klusman sent an email to her and other members of the community with instructions on how people can apply for open board positions. In the email, Klusman said that she encourages “you and members of the groups you are representing to go through all of the different opportunities to serve now available.”

Vice Chair Jim Greene said commissioners have never turned anyone away from serving on a board because of their race and will not do so in the future. Advisory board applicants are not required to specify their race on the submitted application. 

“It is important that the commission have representatives from all parts of our community,” Greene said.

There are currently 45 vacancies on the county’s 76 advisory boards. The Adult Care Home Advisory Committee currently has more vacancies, 11, than it does active members.

The advisory boards cover various topics, from economic development to the Rowan County Transit System. The number of members of each board and the responsibilities they have varies, but Greene said that it is important to have each board filled.

“They give advice about what they think the public wants and that’s what we’re here to do — follow the guidelines of the laws of North Carolina, but also what our people, the citizens of Rowan County, want,” Greene said.

The Historic Landmarks Commission has two vacant seats and five active members. An abundance of vacancies can stymie an advisory board’s ability to serve its purpose.

“There was a long time where it was pretty difficult to have official meetings because we couldn’t get a quorum and everybody had to be present for a quorum to be established,” said Aaron Poplin, a county planner and the Historic Landmarks Commission’s designated liaison. “It made it hard to actually get work done.”

Like many other boards, the Historic Landmarks Commission is hoping to resume its work soon after being sidelined by the pandemic. When COVID-19 stopped normal life last year, the board was working on applications to help two new properties earn historic landmark status.

Wilson said the Historic Landmark Commission will continue to work on those projects and look for others, including those like Neely School. There is an “open invitation,” Wilson said, to people of color who wish to fill the two vacant seats.

To apply for an open board vacancy, visit onboard.rowancountync.gov and click the “Apply for Position” tab in the top right corner. For more information, contact County Clerk Carolyn Barger at 704-216-8181 or by email at Carolyn.Barger@rowancountync.gov.

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