Historic Whitted School reimagined

Whitted School, now accompanied by a construction fence, sits ready for ground breaking on renovations to begin in late February/Early March. (Staff Photo by Tanner Boggs)

When Bruce dePyssler first saw Whitted School, he was intrigued by the history surrounding the building. Now nearly four years after his documentary, “Upbuilding Whitted School” premiered, groundbreaking is set for its renovation at the end of February.

For dePyssler, a Professor of Mass Communication at North Carolina Central University and campus newspaper advisor, Whitted School held an important role in the Hayti community of Durham. The closing of Whitted was just a small piece of what was occurring in the Hayti community at the time.

The “Upbuilding Whitted,” documentary team from NCCU (left to right) Leann Simon, Purity Kimaiyo, Bruce dePyssler and Chi Brown. Team leader dePyssler says the crew, which began working on the documentary five years ago, is happy to see their work turning to progress in the Hayti community. (Photo courtesy Bull City Doc Squad)

“It’s all embedded in the boom and the bust in the Hayti community,” dePyssler said. “The strength of the black community there, that’s the whole upbuilding part. Durham was the basis of this. You had this strong black middle class. W.E.B. Du Bois is going, ‘my god, what’s going on in Durham?’ It’s like what was going on in Atlanta.”

Unfortunately for Durham, programs such as urban renewal, coupled with integration and the building of the Durham highway, had massive repercussions on Durham and the Hayti community.

“With integration, urban renewal, and the highway coming through the Hayti community, suddenly successful African-Americans are moving out of the neighborhood,” dePyssler said. “People began shopping at Walmart instead of the local black businesses.”

Before closing in the mid-1970s, Whitted School operated as the first black grade school in North Carolina. The school was a major feature of the thriving African-American Hayti community of Durham. After it closed in the mid-1970s, dePyssler noted the surrounding community suffered, and the once thriving Hayti community ground to a halt.

Almost 40 years later, plans are underway to renovate and redevelop Whitted School into a mixed-use facility, combining preschool classrooms and senior living apartments.

According to Durham School Board member and former Whitted student Minnie Forte-Brown, Whitted was named after a prominent black family in early Durham. As a result, Whitted holds an important place in the history of Durham’s African-American community, making residents like Forte-Brown cherish its significance.

“It has its tentacles deep in the roots of Durham history for blacks,” said Forte-Brown, who attended Whitted for eighth grade. “It sits in the heart of what we call Hayti, the thriving community where blacks made so much progress.”

When the school closed in the 1970s, much of the surrounding neighborhood suffered dearly. But many, including Rev. Michael Page, Antioch Baptist Church pastor and county commissioner, believe the renovation will help the surrounding community rebound. For Page, it all starts with the younger generation.

“This is going to be great for kids to have an opportunity for preschool education. It will be really close to many of the homes of the children in the community,” Page said. “We really like the concept of the seniors being a part of that because seniors are a generation of parents that are key to helping to build our children. I think the two are a nice connection that go hand in hand.”

By emphasizing preschool education, community leaders like Page and Forte-Brown hope to reestablish the connection between community and education that was lost when Whitted closed.

Much like Page, Forte-Brown believes the establishment of expanded preschool services, along with the unique involvement of senior citizens, will place the community’s emphasis back on the education of its youngest residents. By establishing expanded preschool services, community leaders hope to eventually move to a publicly funded preschool for all, thus allowing all children to excel academically.

As for Forte-Brown, this is just the beginning of what many in the community see as a step in the right direction, especially for the youngest generation.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “Eight classrooms for children with over 140 children in the building — 3 and 4-year-olds — that’s fantastic.”

With the project finally coming to fruition, dePyssler and his documentary crew can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel on a project they started in 2011. For dePyssler, knowing that he and his crew had some sort of impact on the resurrection of the historic building is highly rewarding.

“It’s a great source of pride to me and the rest of the documentary crew – April Leanne Simon, Purity Kimaiyo and Chi Brown – to have played some small part in drawing attention to the importance of rescuing this historic building,” dyPyssler said.

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