Who Will Save The Siloam School?

Nov 16, 2019

The Charlotte Museum of History is trying to save a historic African American schoolhouse in north Charlotte that was one of the area's earliest schools to give formal education to black children. The museum hopes to restore the building and turn it into an exhibit for today's schoolchildren, but it's facing challenges raising funds and interest in the project.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a group of strangers in coats and scarves were climbing the steps to the old schoolhouse, known as the Siloam School, named after a nearby Presbyterian church.

Adria Focht, the executive director of the Charlotte Museum of History, was there to welcome them inside. She was giving tours to raise awareness of the structure and the museum's campaign to save it.

Adria Focht, center, is the president of the Charlotte Museum of History. She's helping lead the effort to preserve the Siloam school in north Charlotte.
Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE

On the outside, the building isn't much to look at. The windows are boarded up, and the tin roof is covered in rust. But on the inside, Focht says the century-old schoolhouse is remarkably well-preserved.

"All of the original flooring, the walls, the ceiling, is all still intact," she said. "You can even see some of the original window frames, the doors, the areas where the chalkboards were -- they're all still intact and primed for historic restoration."

The schoolhouse is also notable for its connection to Booker T. Washington, who along with businessman Julius Rosenwald paid for half of its construction. The rest of the money was raised from the community.

That was the deal in the Rosenwald School program, which funded thousands of schools for black students around the South in the early 20th century. Many have since been torn down or turned into community centers or stores, but this one is special because it has remained more or less unaltered from its original state.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE

The Museum of History hopes to restore the building and turn it into an exhibit at its property on Shamrock Drive, but interest and money for the project has been hard to find. The museum needs $800,000 for the project, but after three years of fundraising, they've only managed $60,000.

Focht says one of the biggest challenges is simply making people aware of the building. It's hidden away behind an apartment complex, and if you didn't know any better, you might think it was an old shed.

"We've had a lot of people who are driving through this community today who say, 'I drive past this twice a day. I live right there. I had no idea what this was,'" Focht said.

Jerry Hollis is chair of Silver Star Inc., a local group dedicated to restoring historic buildings, especially Rosenwald schools.
Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE

Those comments were echoed by Jerry Hollis, with Silver Star Inc., a local group partnering with the museum and the historic landmarks commission on the project.

"A lot of people just thought it was an old house or an old building that needed to be torn down, and didn't actually know the history of it," he said.

The pace of fundraising has been modest from the beginning, Focht says. While the plan at first was to raise the money from community donations, the museum has now begun seeking major donations from outside as well.

"I think now we realize that it's such a great undertaking, that it's going to take some foundations, it's going to take some national attention, contributions from the city and the county, as well as the community coming together, because it is such a big endeavor," she said.

Credit Charlotte Museum of History

They've had some success with an online GoFundMe, and a $50,000 gift from the city. Focht says she's expecting to announce a major gift from the county in the near future, too. But she says reaching that $800,000 figure is still going to be difficult.

"As we're meeting with foundation heads, we're hearing a lot of, 'Well, when you get to that halfway point, come back and see us,' because they want to see that that community initiative is there," she said.

The museum has set a deadline of 2022 to have all the money raised. Hollis says he hopes the groups can do it, because no one else has shown much interest in saving the schoolhouse -- or the history associated with it.

"Even though right now, it seems like it's an old, torn-down building," he said, "at one time, it was a pride and joy to where kids was able come and learn."

He worries that if the building isn't restored and moved to the museum, today's schoolchildren will never have an opportunity to see and feel that history firsthand.

Corrected Dec. 12, 2019 - An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the museum had raised about $200,000 for restoration work. As of the airing of this story, the museum had raised $60,000.