Dunbar Center getting cleaned up; future remains unclear

Published 12:05 am Thursday, May 11, 2023

EAST SPENCER — The convoluted history of the Paul L. Dunbar Center, which was originally built as a school and has spent several different lives during its more than 100 year history, is still something of a question mark for East Spencer officials. But they are taking firmer steps to at least clear the property.

Initially built as a one-room school house in 1900, the property was first called East Spencer Negro School. Several rooms were added as the student body grew. In 1921, it had a growth spurt, going from eight rooms to a new, 11-room classroom structure with an auditorium, library, office, lunchroom and a basement.

In 1958, it was renamed Dunbar High School after Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first Black poets to gain national recognition and who was published by the age of 14.

A decade later, the school was both integrated and renamed, this time as North Rowan Middle School. But by the 1990s, the school was well past its glory days, and it took a group of residents to prevent demolition of part of the campus in order to create an alternative school. In 1995, still owned by the school system, the facility returned to its honorary name and became the Paul Laurence Dunbar Center, housing both school and public offices and private entities.

At the end of December 2014, parts of the facility were destroyed by a five-alarm fire that required dozens of firefighters to control. However, some of the structure that was not damaged continued to be used until 2000, when it was clear more of the building had fallen into disrepair. The school system put the property on the market in 2004, and in 2006, it was purchased by New Unity Rising LLC out of Washington, D.C. In 2008, it was again sold, this time to Shady Grove Baptist Church. The Dunbar Center, valued at $600,000 at the time of its dedication in 1958 had an assessed value of $257,627 at the time of the 2008 sale. The property was later purchased by an investment group called the Paul L Dunbar Group or PDLG, made up of private investors.

In 2016, an application was made to the state for a charter school license by the PDLG, of which Kenneth Foxx Muhammad El was listed as chairman. Foxx served as East Spencer mayor from 1999-2001. The application was denied because Muhammad El had convictions on his record from 2005 and covered crimes of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, federal program bribery, to affect commerce through extortion, use of mail to promote bribery and promote money laundering, and the charge of obtaining property through false pretenses. The state was also concerned about the group chosen to manage the school.

Foxx changed his last name after a 41-month jail sentence to Muhammad El, and in 2021 he played host to a groundbreaking on the Dunbar Center site for what was supposed to be a housing development. Dunbar Development Company, which lists Darrel Foxx as chief executive officer, was to be co-developing the property with DIVA Construction Company. Darrell Foxx is one of 13 children of the late Howard E. Foxx Sr. and Essie Mae Kiser Foxx and brother to Kenneth Fox Muhammad El. That development never reached fruition.

During his time as mayor, Kenneth Fox had, in his role as executive director of the town’s Empowerment Network, made efforts to get funding for the town to purchase the Dunbar Center for use as a therapeutic community center or family resource center. The purchase never happened.

And despite the multiple attempts at finding a new use for the site, any cleanup following the 2014 fire also never happened, and over the years, the town has been left with what many consider an eye sore sitting on the main thoroughfare. The damaged and empty property was also never fenced off and the parts destroyed by fire remained on site for almost eight years.

At last, the town has paid for a crew to remove the fire-damaged portions, but the cost reached nearly $200,000, Town Manager Michael Douglas received approval from the board of aldermen to pay for the removal, but the town has put a lien on the property to recover that cost. Any sale of the property will have to be at least $195,000 to repay the town.

“We will continue to work to make the property safe, and with the owners to find a use that is in keeping with our growing community,” said Douglas. But he also noted that the town will continue with its insistence that the property owners meet code requirements for the property. Several code violations were issued prior to having the fire damaged portions removed, and Douglas said the remaining part of the facility will have to be brought up to or maintained to at least minimum code requirements.

The property is still, according to the most recent accessible documents, owned by the PLDG, but tracing recent ownership has proved challenging. Attempts to reach Muhammad El at his most recently listed number were unsuccessful.