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Former two-classroom, all-Black Ridge Road School placed on national historic register

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Ridge Road School, the former two-classroom schoolhouse, sits on Coleman Loop Road on Tuesday, March 5, 2024.

Every morning for four years, starting in 1942, Louis Watkins would wear a pair of bib overalls and brogan shoes and walk three miles with all the other children to the Ridge Road School on a dirt road.

The school — built in 1932 for Black students — was small. It had two classrooms and a kitchen. The desks were lined up in rows, with a big blackboard at the front of the room. There was one room for first through fourth grades and another for fifth through seventh grades.

Though it has been 82 years since Watkins attended Ridge Road School, he remembers it well.

He remembers recess, when all the kids would play ball with a homemade ball and bat, and how the teacher would ring a bell to call them all inside. He remembers his favorite subject was arithmetic, and how his teacher, Ms. Torian, was always willing to answer questions and help students who were behind. He remembers his favorite book, "Dick and Jane and Friends," which belonged to the school, but the teachers let him take it home to read with his family.

Watkins is 88 years old now. He serves as the Deacon-Chairman of the Jones Grove Missionary Baptist Church, just across the street.

“When I look at the school, I almost cry sometimes because of the shape it’s in and we talked so many times about getting together fixing that school up, and the people that was talking about it, most of them are gone,” he said.

But, on Feb. 28, the Orange County Historic Preservation Commission announced the Ridge Road School was officially placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which recognizes historic sites and buildings around the country that should be preserved. 

Having the National Register recognition allows sites like the Ridge Road School to receive grant funding for repairs.

The process to get the school on the list started in 2021, when the commission began to work with Pastor Tremaine Royster of the Jones Grove Missionary Baptist Church, which has maintained the building since 1951.

Peter Sandbeck, the Orange County cultural resources coordinator, said the commission realized during the repair of the Cedar Grove School — a larger all-Black school built in 1951 — that they had overlooked many major Black institutions that were also important to the community.

“The residents of the Black community up there said, ‘You know, we are not telling the story of the Black schools in the county,’” he said. “We're not talking about all the pain that started back in the early 1900s, 1920s and '30s to move the needle toward desegregation.”

The Orange County Historic Preservation Commission then hired a consultant, Heather Fearnbach, who put together a 35-page report detailing the history and significance of the place, and why it should be on the national register. The report was sent to the State Historic Preservation Office, which looked over the nomination.

Jeffrey Smith, the state’s national register coordinator, said preserving significant buildings like the Ridge Road School helps keep the soul of a community. 

“It's fundamental to remember those places that left an indelible impression upon the local landscape,” he said. “And I think once they're gone, all you have is a memory or a picture and a coffee table book. And that's not nearly the same as still having that building standing there that people drive past and see and maybe say, ‘Gosh, I wonder what happened there?’”

Now, as Sandbeck and Royster work to find grants for the building, they hope to repair the outside of the school first, before working on the inside, where it might be repurposed for anything between a food bank or community events. 

As for Watkins — he said he is just happy to see it repaired.

“I loved the school,” he said. “I just loved the teachers. I loved the people. It was a really good school.”

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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