Alumni work to preserve Second Ward High School’s legacy for Black students

CHARLOTTE — Second Ward High School was Charlotte’s first public high school for Black students in the city -- a hundred years later, those connected to the school are working to make sure its impacts are remembered for another hundred years and beyond.

The school opened in 1923, and last year, alumni celebrated its centennial. Channel 9′s Jonathan Lowe found out that event is part of a renewed journey to preserve its history.

Historical marker honors the site of Second Ward High School in Charlotte

“We started getting calls from Second Ward High School alumni, as well as ... family members,” said Arthur Griffin, the president of the Second Ward National Foundation and alumnus of the school.

“We have absolutely uncovered some significant stories.”

Griffin said the foundation heard from people who wanted to share the knowledge of the school’s lineage and origin stories that they didn’t want to be lost forever.

Protesters in Charlotte during segregation

They include stories of how people found strength, determination, and skill to succeed during the segregation era.

“Second Ward made us feel we could do anything we wanted to do at a time when segregation was state-sanctioned, we walked with our heads high because we knew we could use slide rule and calculator as well as anybody else,” Griffin said.

Take the story of Lt. Fred Brewer Jr., a 1938 graduate of Second Ward High School who served his country as one of the lauded Tuskegee Airmen until he was shot down over Italy during World War II.

“They could not identify his remains for 79 years but we did some work with the family,” Griffin said.

And this past December, Channel 9 was there as Brewer was repatriated and properly laid to rest at the Salisbury National Cemetery Annex.

Brewer’s legacy lives at the Second Ward Alumni House on Beatties Ford Road.

Arthur Griffin holds a picture of Lt. Fred Brewer Jr., a graduate of Second Ward High School and Tuskegee Airman.

“We have everything there is to know about him, his records, in terms of being missing in action,” Griffin said.

But while artifacts of the school still exist at the alumni house, living examples of the school’s history aren’t as readily available -- or so it was first thought.

“We found out that Ms. Julia McKnight Teamer, a graduate of 1936, is 107 years old, still alive in Charlotte,” Griffin said.

It was through the centennial celebration that Susan Slade, Teamer’s niece, realized the power of her own lineage.

“I grew up with her and her story, but at that time, being young, it didn’t have the same impact that it has now,” Slade said. “Once I started seeing all of this history, people, letters, awards, I said this needs to be preserved.”

Ms. Teamer was recognized this past January by the Mecklenburg County Commission for her dedication to children, proclaiming January 17 as Julia Ann McKnight Teamer Day.

Lowe spoke with the 107-year-old graduate about what made her become an educator.

“I enjoyed being a teacher and helping people to learn, especially young people,” Ms. Teamer told Lowe.

She was educated at institutions like Johnson C. Smith University and Columbia -- she and her husband would later open their own school, The Teamer School.

“If they wanted to come, they came we had a few whites, and then we had Blacks,” Ms. Teamer told Lowe.

She’s still spry and energetic, and she remembers clearly what drove her to inspire young lives.

“They wanted to finish high school at least, and we encouraged them to continue their study, and they would become whatever they wanted them to be,” Ms. Teamer said.

And that was despite the segregation that she lived through from beginning to end.

“Even being one of the first Black teachers to integrate the white schools, that’s her legacy, that’s part of what she did, and you don’t hear anything negative about that either,” Slade said.

Slade believes that’s why her aunt has lived such a long life.

“Her heart is in a place that she loves all people, she always has, she finds the good in everyone,” Slade said.

It’s those kinds of stories that the alumni foundation hopes the community will help them gather more of.

History’s Future (video below)

Alumni say the school stood as a symbol of what’s possible, and the relics inside the Second Ward Alumni House are reminders of the stories that prove that.

“It needs to be encased so that people can handle it, so that people can feel it; I want this to be like a hands-on, I want this to be like Discovery Place,” Griffin said.

The facility is a diamond in the rough full of history after the collection’s opening in 1991. But now, it’s at risk.

“It is not the ideal place, right, because of the deteriorating facility, the facility needs substantial renovation or to be torn down and rebuilt,” Griffin said.

A sign on the Second Ward High School Alumni House shows wear decades after the museum opened.

Griffin says they’re hoping the latest refocus on the school can lead to the creation of an actual museum.

“We need at least $2 million to make this dream come true, so we’re still knocking on doors,” Griffin told Lowe.

He says they’re envisioning a museum with interactive exhibits, and the goal is for construction to start later this year.

You can take part by donating at the Second Ward High School Alumni Foundation’s website at this link.

(WATCH > Black History Month Spotlight: “Chatty Hatty” Leeper)

Jonathan Lowe

Jonathan Lowe, wsoctv.com

Jonathan is a reporter for WSOC-TV.

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