Charlotte’s first two tax-supported public schools opened on September 11, 1882. Given this was prior to Brown vs. The Board of Education, the two schools were segregated, with South Graded School (later renamed D.H. Hill School) opening for white students and Myers Street School opening for African American students.
Each school served students of all grades before becoming elementary schools in the 20th Century. In the early 1950s, D.H. Hill School was converted into a warehouse for the school system before it was torn down in 1954.
Built in 1858, the South Graded School was originally the North Carolina Military Institute. During the Civil War, the institute served as both a hospital and a Federal Prison. Its location was the current site of the Dowd YMCA.
Myers Street School began in an old tobacco barn on 5th Street and operated until 1907 when the original building closed. As more students came to Myers Street School, the building had to be expanded to accommodate them. The students and faculty moved into a new wood-frame building in 1887, located on land that had belonged to the Myers family. Fire escapes were added to the outside of the wooden building, and the pattern of stairways gave the school a nickname: The Jacob’s Ladder School.
The iconic fire-escape stairwell outside Myers Street School.
Dr. Willie Griffin of the Levine Museum of the New South writes, "This type of biblical reference lent itself to the idea, which one noted authority suggests, that “African American parents often saw education as a commodity, making direct links between schooling and upward mobility.” Students day in and day out climbed the mythical staircases to heaven believing that they were securing better lives for themselves and future families on earth."
By the time the class of 1918 posed for their portrait, Myers Street School had already begun to expand, adding new curriculum, classrooms and a cafeteria.
Myers Street School Newspaper, The Pigeon (1958).
After successful lobbying and light being shed on the fact that officials were allowing the school to fall into disrepair by journalists like Trezzvant Anderson, a new brick building followed in 1931. In the late 1940s, Myers Street was the largest elementary school for black children in North Carolina.
Myers Street School was finally closed in 1969 as a part of the city’s urban renewal project in the Brooklyn (Second Ward) neighborhood. Its inspiration, however, still lives on today in the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. This concept of hope, advancement and enlightenment through cultural awareness and education is expressed in the Gantt Center design through its modern interpretation of Jacob's Ladder. Stairs and escalators carry visitors up to the main second floor lobby from both ends of the building while framing the central glass atrium. The striking visual effect is a direct allusion to the original Jacob's Ladder and perpetuates the ideals of enlightenment and advancement through education.
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
UNC Charlotte Special Collections on Instagram: @unccspeccoll
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library, The Charlotte Mecklenburg Story | Exhibits - African American Album, Volume 2, "Myers Street School."
SemanticScholar.org, Courier of Crisis, Messenger of Hope: Trezzvant W. Anderson and The Black Freedom Struggle for Economic Justice," by Dr. Willie James Griffin.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass