Potecasi Pride

Published 11:33 am Monday, September 12, 2016

POTECASI – The roots of education run deep within the walls of a tiny building standing on the edge of Griffintown Road near this equally small Northampton County community.

In 1878, land was offered to build what was to become Potecasi Graded School. This make-shift school originally had just one teacher, Madison Brewer, who was paid $7 per month.

Years later, Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears Roebuck Company, set up as fund to aid the education of blacks in the rural south. Some of that funding came to Potecasi, helping to expand the size of its school to three classrooms as well as adding an auditorium and hiring three full time teachers.

Potecasi Graded School prospered until the late 1950’s – just prior to integration. The school closed in 1957.

However, the building found new life in 1959 as the Potecasi Community Center, thanks to the efforts of Rev. Sherley Edwards, Leonard A. Slade Sr. and Willie Williams. Its heyday came in the 70’s and 80’s where the building was used as the hub for numerous community activities and educational training programs.

Unfortunately, as Potecasi’s population declined and financial resources disappeared, the community center became isolated and finally deserted all together.

However, the community spirit – later dubbed as “Potecasi Pride” – survived.

By the early 1990’s several women in and around Potecasi initiated a campaign to breathe new life into the community center. Led by Elizabeth Slade, Wilma Cumbo, Ruth Buffaloe, Fannie Jones and others, the center was refurbished and revitalized. Money was raised to refurbish the largest room and other cosmetic changes were made.

But once again, this venerable building would grow silent, this time (2001) falling victim to an aging population.

However, life always begins anew and in 2010, Mary Slade Settle (the daughter of Leonard and Elizabeth Slade and a 1957 graduate of the school) stepped to the plate and launched a fundraising effort to save this landmark. Nearly $80,000 later, the revived Potecasi Community Center boasted of a new roof, windows, and doors; renovations were made to the bathrooms; a handicapped ramp was constructed; and the old Cannery became a library and museum, documenting information about students attending Potecasi Graded School.

On Sept. 3, hundreds turned out, including former students, to witness this transformation.

“I’m so touched by those who have contributed in so many ways to preserve this building. All of us have so many fond memories of this special place in our lives,” said Settle, moments after cutting a ceremonial ribbon to celebrate the grand re-opening of the historic structure.

“We may live elsewhere today, but our roots are here in Potecasi. We come here to pay homage to those who have gone on before us, those with the vision to do so much with so little,” she added.

Tony Foriest of Alamance County, the son of a former student at the school and former District 24 NC Senator, presided over the “homecoming.”

“Don’t ever give up the cause of this school. It was here for you, and you saved it,” Foriest remarked. “You are preserving its legacy not for you, but for future generations of this community.

He spoke Potecasi Pride and the long-lasting impact this tiny community had on those living there.

“This is part of the legacy I’m talking about,” Foriest implied. “We all have a story and we need to tell that story so current and future generations will know of and share that Potecasi pride on down the line. Our children need to know what we went through and what’s at stake when they get involved.

“And we need to also realize what this renovated building will mean to those still living here in the Potecasi community,” Foriest continued. “It can be used for a variety of events, such as reunions, birthday/anniversary parties…even as a voting precinct. This is a beautiful facility.”

Settle’s involvement in the restoration effort was a five-year journey.

“We joined together to raise money for our beloved Potecasi Community Center,” she said. “A lot of people stepped to the plate in this labor of love.”

She noted many of the schools built in North Carolina and other southern states that closed upon integration in the 1960’s have now fallen to the ground.

“We saved this little school; this little building is now vibrant and alive,” Settle noted. “It wasn’t too vibrant five years ago, but it was alive. It had a pulse and we joined together to save it.”

Settle lost her parents in 2009 and 2010. She said it was the wish of her now late mother, Elizabeth, to see the school building saved and used as a community center.

She praised members of her church – Emmanuel Baptist in Washington, DC – particularly the church choir, who braved the rain and wind of Tropical Storm Hermine to take part in Saturday’s dedication program.

Settle recalled the lay-out of the old school: a classroom shared by 6th, 7th and 8th graders; another classroom for 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, and one for she called the “premmer” classes: Pre-K, K and 1st grades.

“We had a Pre-K program long before it gained the popularity it has today,” she boasted.

Another part of the school was used as an auditorium, complete with a stage.

The school closed in 1957. Settle was among the nine students in the 8th grade that year. Four of those nine attended Saturday’s event, and none of them, according to Settle, still reside in Potecasi.

“That shows you the love they have for this school,” she remarked.

Three former students of Potecasi Graded School also recalled their time of growing and learning.

“I remember my three teachers here – Ruth Boone, Bertha Joyner, and Lillie Mae Cherry,” said Jessie Boone Jr. who moved away from Potecasi over 50 years ago, worked in Washington, DC and is now retired in Stern, NC. “I remember standing on this stage and singing….or in my case, trying to sing.”

He recalled the school being heated by a pot bellied stove.

“I can remember having to go back in the woods behind the school and cut wood for that stove,” he said. “I also remember the road out here in front of the school being all dirt. It was dusty when a car came by.”

Minister Dorothy Bradley did not stray far from home, now residing in Rich Square.

“This is all we knew; we thought we had it good back then,” she said of the school. “Now I look around and see all the beautiful work did through the restoration.”

Bradley said she began attending Potecasi Graded School in the third grade after her parents moved from Newport News, VA.

She also recalled how the combination classes worked, saying if the teacher was offering verbal instruction specific to one grade, the other grades in the same room had to study quietly from their desks.

“We all came for an education and this place is where I started the foundation on which I’ve built my life,” Bradley noted.

Evelyn Mitchell Neal of Prince George, VA said she is a proud native of “little old Potecasi.”

“This will always be home,” she smiled. “I’ve always had to teach those not from here how to pronounce Potecasi.

Neal said she strongly believed that the popular saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ traces its roots to Potecasi.

“We were a village and this village started at this building,” she remarked. “I think back to all that I learned inside these walls and the good teachers we had…..teachers who taught us more than what was in a book, they taught us love, respect and discipline.”

She recalled attending the teacher retirement party held in honor of Ruth Boone.

“One thing that touched my heart was her saying that she prayed over each and every child she taught,” Neal said. “She never stopped praying for us. We’re all blessed because of teachers like Ruth Boone and other who offered guidance in our lives. That support allowed us to grow and prosper as working class citizens, and that foundation all started right here. This was our promised land.”

And those “promises” continue today through generations of Potecasi natives who refuse to see this landmark sit empty.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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