Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Eastern Shore News
By Stacia Childers
ACCOMAC–The inspiring story is well-known on the Eastern Shore.
Mary Nottingham Smith, already a veteran educator when she was recruited by Accomack County to supervise the education of black students in 1921, worked tirelessly to raise the funds necessary to build the county’s first high school for blacks in 1932.
She solicited money from churches, sold ice cream cones and went door-to-door. Two years after her dream was realized, the school board named the building for her.
The spirit of Smith and her mission was evoked many times at a community meeting here on Saturday afternoon at Macedonia A.M.E. Church. Nearly 60 members of the 35 – 70 Mary Nottingham Smith Alumni Association, Inc. gathered to solidify plans to attempt to purchase, renovate and preserve the deteriorating building, its history and the memory of its remarkable namesake.
The group would like to convert the former Mary N. Smith High School, most recently a county middle school, into a multi-purpose community center that might host such programs and uses as continuing education and GED, workforce readiness, a museum and archives, a walking track and veteran’s programs.
“I know its costly. It’s going to require a lot of money to get the building functional,” said 1966 Smith graduate Berran Rogers after the meeting.
Rogers, a longtime former member of the Accomack County School Board who is heading up efforts to secure the group’s nonprofit status, echoed the sentiments of the crowd that also included three Accomack County Supervisors.
“We really want the building,” he said.
The building in question is actually the second school named in honor of Smith. The brick structure on U.S. Route 13 opened in 1953 after the student body outgrew the first. When Accomack schools integrated in 1970, Mary N. Smith became a middle school. Since its closure nearly three years ago, the building has essentially been left to languish behind plywood-covered windows. The county’s special education department is housed in an auxiliary building behind the school.
The deep affection and loyalty that the alumni feel for their alma mater goes beyond traditional high school nostalgia.
“It’s a legacy and a heritage of the black community,” Rogers said.
The association, led by President Marcie White, a 1949 graduate of Smith, has been concerned about the building’s fate since it closed, at various times pleading with the school board and the county to preserve the building as a community center, a museum or a charter school.
Now, with rumors of burst pipes and speculating developers swirling, the group has become even more anxious about the beloved school’s future. The group’s members feel they need to take matters into their own hands before an important piece of local black history slips through their fingers.
White said that talks with Accomack County School Superintendent Richard Bull have convinced her that the group’s charter school proposal is out. So at Saturday’s meeting the group unanimously voted to proceed with Plan B – taking on the monumental task of building ownership themselves.
First, however, members have to convince the school board to release it, a move that the supervisors present seemed to be in favor of, as well.
Supervisor Ron Wolff referenced a recent space study of all county-owned properties conducted last year by a Virginia Beach firm that recommended housing the school board headquarters in the former Accomack Primary School.
That building, which has not been used as educational space for several years — it’s now used for storage — would be less expensive to renovate because it has no interior load bearing walls, making it easier to reconfigure.
The study also stated that the Smith school’s large size and distance from Accomac town proper do not make it conducive to county or school offices, but said that it could be used as affordable multi-unit housing, loft apartments for senior citizens or as a freestanding community and athletic center.
Wolff said that he “would like to see the school board take Accomac Primary. The school board just has not made a decision.”
He also said that he hoped that “someone would press them” and ask about their plans for the two schools.
Supervisors can’t act on a school property until it is deemed surplus by the school board and turned over to the county.
Supervisor Reneta Major, whose mother, the late former Accomack County Supervisor Julia Major, was a Smith alumnus, spoke passionately and encouragingly to attendees.
“I feel this group should own the building. That’s my opinion. I’m speaking as Reneta Major,” she said to clarify that the sentiment was personal and not political.
“If our ancestors had that drive to build the building, I do think we should have that same drive.”
White said that Smith’s family is very supportive of plans to preserve the school, and that the association is rapidly gaining grassroots support as well.
“Each time we meet we see new faces,” she said. Saturday’s meeting hosted the largest turnout since the group’s efforts to find a use for the school began in earnest this January.
Maintaining the building
Supervisor Steve Mallette, whose children attended Mary N. Smith when it was a middle school, advised the group to think carefully about the proposed use of the 54-year-old building and how that use would be sustained.
“You have to feed the beast,” he cautioned.
The beast is apparently voracious. White told the group that the operating expenses for the building during its last year of use as a public school, in 2004, were $68,176.
As for estimating a purchase price, supervisors present all agreed that it was highly unlikely that the property would sell for anywhere near the current appraised value of the building and grounds — $2,186,480, according to White — citing the recent sale prices of the former Central and Parksley schools at $715,000 and $165,000, respectively.
Even so, the group has a long way to go. So far $1,076 has been raised, primarily from passing the hat at association meetings.
But fundraising committee chair Betty Savage reported that a major initiative has begun and includes a raffle, a pledge drive, a charity sports
event, and a grand ball slated for the fall. The association has also begun researching grants and soliciting the assistance of experienced grant writers.
Savage also pointed out that just because the proposed community center will function as a nonprofit doesn’t mean that it can’t utilize profit-generating means to offset fundraising needs.
For instance, funds generated from renting out the building for weddings or other events could be used to pay for operating expenses such as electricity.
In the meantime, association is working feverishly to get a proposal together for the school board, produce a brochure and circulate petitions and flyers.
Members are also recruiting heavily to fill the seats at the May 1 school board meeting when they are on the agenda. That meeting will take place at 7 p.m. at Metompkin Elementary School.
With only two weeks to go, White tried to convey to attendees the importance of making their presentation before the school board count.
“If we miss this . . . I feel this is our last opportunity,” White said.
Donations may be sent to the alumni association at P.O. Box 175, Accomac, VA 23301. Checks should be made out to the 35 – 70 Mary N. Smith Alumni Association, Inc. For more information, contact Marcie White at 787-2107.