My Turn, Angelo Franceschina: New challenge rises for R.A. Clement School

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 19, 2021

 By Angelo Franceschina 

In 1876 Rufus and Emma Clement, freed slaves, moved to Rowan County. The Clements wanted their and children of East Cleveland to have an opportunity for an education.

They provided land, raised funds with help of a local carpenter and community volunteers and constructed a one-room school in 1886. Under the Clements’ leadership in 1920 the community also built a three-room school. 

The Clements with the parent-teacher association requested help from the Rosenwald Fund in 1930 to build a school named the Cleveland Colored School. Renamed in 1946 R.A. Clement School in recognition of the Clements. The masonry constructed building had four classrooms, an auditorium plus a library that doubled as a principal’s office. The Rosenwald Fund founded by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald helped build 5,357 schools in 15 southern states. That included 787 schools and 26 support buildings in North Carolina. Of the four in Rowan County, only J.C. Price and R.A. Clement are still standing. Livingstone College received funds under Rosenwald’s private college fund. 

The R.A. Clement School faced challenges from the day it opened its doors.

From 1938 to 1946, the educational needs of East Cleveland grew when 22 one-to-two room schools from western Rowan County consolidated into R.A. Clement. That more than doubled the student population, increasing the need for teachers and classrooms. Classes were held only three days a week and school buses were used for classrooms. Students that attended off days had to stand in class. The community rallied support. Churches in Cleveland made their buildings’ available, including Allen Temple, Presbyterian, Third Creek and Provident Baptist. In 1946, additional space was made available by adding classrooms in the original auditorium and in the lower crawl (basement), which was also used for a snack room and lunch room. In 1948, R.A. Clement was granted high school certification. Its first class graduated six students. In 1949, plans were made for a segregated high school two blocks south called the flattop building. R.A. Clement was then used as a grammar school and closed in 1968 due to integration.  

The PTA in 1969 purchased the building to save it from possible demolition. Two years later, the West Rowan Neighborhood Center Advisory Council (WRNCAC), was organized as building owner and developer. In 1974, the R.A. Clement Alumni Association was organized. It has held biennial reunions, except for the year of Covid-19. Both are 501(c)(3)s. WRNCAC opened a community center in 1976 that included Head Start, senior services and family programs. It served the town of Cleveland and surrounding communities, but it closed in 1989. 

In 2003, the community started the school’s preservation with financial support from the Covington Foundation and the town of Cleveland. Materials donated by Home Depot and volunteer labor saved and stabilized the building. Major donors and funders stepped up, including the Rosenwald family descendants, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Robertson Foundation, Lowe’s, among others. The alumni association accepted a challenge to match grants made by donors and funders. 

All the community efforts resulted in exterior restoration and securing National Register of Historic Places designation in 2019. That included the site, school and adjacent auditorium constructed in 1942 under the Work Progress Administration.  The historic designation brought U.S. Congressman Ted Budd, 13th District Representative, to celebrate with the community the recognition of R.A. Clement as a national historic site.  

After 51 years of challenges — building the school, consolidation, saving the school, creating WRNCAC and the R.A. Clement Association and opening a center to serve its community — the challenge now is full reuse of the historic buildings. This will honor the 1969 commitment to the community to reuse the school for information sharing, recreational and educational services, cultural programs and community space. It will honor the legacy of the benefactors, Rufus and Emma Clement and Julius Rosenwald, who helped make the construction of R. A. Clement possible. 

I have been privileged to be associated with the R.A. Clement preservation and worked with a community that has never given up preserving their “story.” They have learned from their past to build a better community for future generations. 

Angelo Franceschina has an interest in the preservation of Rosenwald schools. He’s assisted with the Walnut Cove Rosenwald School, which resulted in a senior citizens center. Success with that project led him to R.A. Clement and other schools.