Spirit of Rowan 2023: A classroom is forever — a look inside the life of two historic schools

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 26, 2023

Breathing new life into a space that was once filled with the sounds of children playing and learning is proving a worthwhile endeavor for the people of Cleveland because the same places where they learned their multiplication tables are becoming community fixtures.

R.A. Clement School in Cleveland was built in the 1920s for Black children during segregation. Students went through the 12th grade. However, the last graduating class was in 1968.

The school was built as part of the Rosenwald Fund, which supported construction of more than 5,000 schools for Black students in the Southern states during the early 20th century.

After the school shut its doors, the West Rowan Neighborhood Center Advisory Council took it over and started using it as a community center. As the building aged, cracks and infrastructure issues began to reveal themselves. A repair budget was not always sufficient, but community members did what they could to keep the building in use.

Leonard Hall serves as the caretaker for the school today. For Hall, a former student, it’s important to keep it going, if no longer as a school, at least as a fixture of the town he grew up in.

“Our forefathers put money into this place to get it built, and we need to try to keep it going,” Hall said.

As the building has deteriorated, so, too, have its appliances. Community members have done what they can to get by.

“We have been using window units to heat and cool the building,” Hall said. “We finally raised enough money to get central heating and air. We’ve been using the building all the time, but with the better system, we can heat and cool in the winter and the summertime.”

The building continues to house events, which range from family reunions to birthdays to the occasional block party.

“We’ve had some pretty good music programs down here, too,” Hall said.

Not far down the road is the Cleveland School, or what’s left of it anyway. In 2019, the bulk of the old school was torn down.

Cleveland School originally served students in all grades before the construction of West Rowan High School, which opened in the fall of 1959. It then served as Cleveland Elementary School until the new West Rowan Elementary School opened nearby.

What was left standing, the school’s media center and auditorium, has been converted into the West Branch of the Rowan Public Library.

To build the branch, Rowan County renovated and repurposed the media center and auditorium of the former campus. The media center became the main library space, complete with books, desktop computers and laptops. As for the auditorium, it is now suitable for hosting live performances and other entertainment, such as a recent recipe swap.

The library supervisor, Lyndsey Maloney, indicated a desire to see the library not just be a place where people came to check out written stories but to swap personal ones as well.

At the recipe swap, some Cleveland school alums, Connie Smith-Christy and Cyndi Allison, shared some memories and swapped old teachers’ names.

“Back then, they would not have enough students to fill two classes,” Allison said. “When I was in first grade, there were not enough for two classes, but there were too many for one, so I was in a first-second combination class. I did second grade classes in first grade.”

She was in a regular second grade class the following year, so she had a leg up on her classmates.

Their fondest memory emanated from the cafeteria.

“They made everything from scratch, even the hamburger buns,” Allison said. “That was the best food ever. You were sitting there trying to do your homework, and you could smell the yeast bread come wafting down the hall. They made homemade soup. They never did anything like those tater tots heated up.”

Sometimes the simplest things in life are the ones that mean the most to you.

“When it was really hot, we got to go out and have an orange juice,” Allison said. “The principal would bring the big tray out with all the little Dixie cups, and everyone would run over and get a frozen orange juice.”

Students may not be roaming the halls at R.A. Clement School or the Cleveland School anymore, but if they are willing, they can still learn a thing or two with a visit.