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Restoration brings a new chapter to Orange Street School

Fayetteville aims to complete renovation on the historic school this summer.


Bishop McNeill’s life has been entwined with the unassuming, two-story brick building on Orange Street — known as the Orange Street School — for as long as he can remember. 

McNeill’s father, Ernest McNeill, was a founding member of the Orange Street School Restoration and Historical Association, a nonprofit organization with the mission of preserving Fayetteville's oldest remaining public education building — and one of the first Black schools established in Cumberland County. Cumberland County Schools deeded the building to the historical association in 1986 to pursue restoration efforts, according to the Fayetteville History Museum. 

“It was my father's vision for this school to be rehabilitated, for the city to take action and do something, and for this to be a linchpin, to really push that community forward and to get that particular area, give them something to look forward to, something, a resource, an option or outlet,” McNeill said.

Located off of Ramsey Street between downtown Fayetteville and the Murchison Road neighborhood, it was built in 1915 as an elementary school for Black students, according to its listing in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1927, it also became home to Cumberland County’s second Black high school — the birthplace of E.E. Smith High School — and was used as a school for Black children until 1953. 

Before the restoration project began, the school was “just a building that stood in this dilapidated part of the city that nobody knew about, even the people who lived in that area,” McNeill said. 

Now, over a century since its construction, the efforts of community organizers like McNeill have stirred local appetite in restoring the school to its original state and function as a place to support underserved youth with newfound educational opportunities. 

Since 2020, the city of Fayetteville and Cumberland County have made significant investments in the restoration project. In May 2022, the city signed a contract with the historical association to complete the restoration and allow Fayetteville-Cumberland Parks and Recreation use the school for educational programming upon completion. As the city nears the end of renovation efforts, with the project aiming to be completed this summer, CityView takes a look at the origins of the restoration and community investment in preserving a core part of Fayetteville’s Black history.   

Steps leading up to the second floor behind the school.
Steps leading up to the second floor behind the school.

Origins of restoration

During the May 2020 Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder, The Ville’s Voice — a local activism group that McNeill  belonged to  — camped out in front of the Market House during the BLM protests, including the school’s repurposing as a community center in their list of demands.  

Organizers say they also devoted time and funding into cleaning up the school and renovating portions of it, so that the nonprofit Greater Life of Fayetteville, could work out of the school. 

“We went in there and cleaned it by hand,” said Rakeem Jones, who was also a part of the Ville’s Voice, which was particularly active during 2020. “We went in there with dust mops and everything else and cleaned up, rearranged tables. We did all that.” 

The Greater Life of Fayetteville moved operations into the school in 2020, after having to leave their initial location because of pandemic challenges, founder Georgeanna Pinckney said. The nonprofit provides free education-based services for low- to medium-income families with first through eighth graders. Services include tutoring, parent workshops and summer programs, Pinckney said. The nonprofit’s goal, Pinckney said, is to help children succeed academically and offer support to “at-risk” youth locally who are suspended or have other behavioral challenges. 

Pinckney said the organization also works closely with the city’s Economic Development Department to get funding for various programs. Pinckney said she was contacted by staff from the department, who encouraged her to get in touch with the Orange Street School Historical Association about finding a new location. She then met with the association and McNeill, who’s group, the Ville’s Voice, offered to pay to remove the mold there and clean it up so Greater Life could move in. She said she was grateful for McNeill’s support and the association’s. 

“We were excited, because the Orange Street School was grateful that we were there, because it’s all about education and helping our youth and helping these families to have a different mindset, to give them a helping hand,” Pinckney said. “Because I know what I went through, and my children know what we went through, and we want to be able to provide that service to the community.”  

The brick fence to the school.
The brick fence to the school.

Fayetteville investment

In August 2020, Fayetteville was approached by the Orange Street School Historical Association, which had plans to revitalize the school as an African American History Museum, according to a city council meeting document from January 2021. The school had been functioning as a museum since its last renovation in the late 1990s, but it had “fallen into disrepair,” the city document said, and the historical association needed financial support to restore it.  

“In 2021, The City’s Economic and Community Development Department led a renovation effort because of the significance of the historical building,” Fayetteville’s Market and Communications Director Loren Bymer said in an email to CityView. “Council voted to allocate $100,000 of Community Development Block Grant funds to assist in January 2021. The purpose was to halt deterioration that the building was experiencing.”  

After the city invested $100,000, Mayor Mitch Colvin said he traveled to Raleigh to lobby for additional funding from the General Assembly for historic projects in the city, particularly those that highlighted African American history. 

“They awarded us four and a half million dollars, one and a half to go toward Market House renovations, a million for Orange Street School to match our $100,000 that we had put in there the year before,” Colvin said. 

Financial investment in the school’s restoration continued in 2023, with the county pitching in. In December, the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners approved $350,000 in funding for Fayetteville-Cumberland Parks and Recreation to use the building, along with the nonprofit Greater Greater Life of Fayetteville. Fayetteville-Cumberland Parks and Recreation plans to establish a community center for education and cultural-arts programming in the building.

The exhibit about Orange Street School at the Fayetteville History Museum.
The exhibit about Orange Street School at the Fayetteville History Museum.

Debate about restoration origins

While McNeill and Jones are excited the renovation project has come to fruition, nearly four years after they camped out outside the Market House, they also expressed frustration over not being credited for their role in the renovations. Specifically, they feel the city has downplayed Ville’s Voice role in creating momentum to bring about the school’s restoration. 

The Ville’s Voice activists said they collaborated with the historical association — which McNeill said he was a member of for four years — but the historic Black school’s restoration and use as a community center was also generated with momentum from the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, often considered the largest protest movement in U.S. history, the activists said. 

“From the perspective of me and Keem and others, it would not have happened without our active involvement and our pushing that and bringing it to the forefront of the attention of city leaders here in Fayetteville,” McNeill said.

Community engagement focused on renovation efforts for the school stretches back decades. Previously, the school had undergone renovations from 1986 to 1996 with grassroots efforts and fundraising from the historical association for an initial restoration.

In an email response to CityView about the community organizers, Bymer said the city “partnered with Cumberland County and the Orange Street School Restoration and Historical Association” on the renovation project.

Speaking to CityView, Colvin said that the school’s restoration “didn't happen because of the protests,” and that the historical association had “been asking for city contributions for years,” at least since he was elected mayor in 2017.  

“The city had already started putting some emphasis there, and the state's allocation of a million dollars really put that project into motion,” Colvin said.  

Museum exhibit and future use

After being used as an elementary school since its construction in 1915,Orange Street School also became home in 1927 to Cumberland County’s second Black high school, what was later known as E.E. Smith High School.  The school housed the high school until 1940. It remained as an elementary and junior high school until 1953, after which it was used for other purposes until Cumberland County Schools abandoned it in 1983, according to the Fayetteville History Museum. The school board deeded the building for $1 to the Orange Street School Restoration and Historical Association in 1986 to restore the building and preserve its history, the National Register of Historic Place listing says.    

The Fayetteville History Museum, an offshoot of Fayetteville-Cumberland Parks and Recreation, has an exhibit about the Orange Street School to mark Black History Month, which the museum plans to keep up all year. The exhibit includes relics from the school’s past, such as textbooks students used and a county fair ribbon won by students in 1916.

The ribbon won by Orange Street School children over 100 years ago.
The ribbon won by Orange Street School children over 100 years ago.

Heidi Bleazey, Fayetteville’s historical properties manager, said in an interview Thursday that the exhibit was partially about inspiring a new generation to get excited about preserving the school’s history. 

“I've met the people who went there before, and they've built their lives, and their hearts are there,” Bleazey said. “Let's get a new generation of children whose hearts are attached to that building, but also getting people in the building to just maintain it, to keep an eye on it, to build that neighborhood back.” 

“There's so many levels of why this effort is important, and there are so many groups who are involved in making that happen. Some of my work will be rolling up my sleeves once we can get in it,” Bleazey added. 

In the exhibit, there is also a reference to The Ville’s Voice efforts to restore the school, as part of their demands during the 2020 George Floyd protests. Bleazey acknowledged that the museum curators “debated about” including the information about the Ville’s Voice in the exhibit, but ultimately decided to include it, despite it being “a little recent, a little raw,” and other local groups also being involved in the restoration project. 

“We want to preserve our history,” Bleazey said. 

The description of The Ville's Voice involvement in the school's restoration.
The description of The Ville's Voice involvement in the school's restoration.

Bleazey said she would like to showcase some of the artifacts that are already on the second floor from when the historical association preserved it for use as a museum after the first renovation in the 1990s. 

“There's some really neat stories,” Bleazey said. “There's a room that's set up like a historic classroom that the Orange Street Historical Association had. The historical association had objects and art and little plaques of names of people who were teachers and graduates and things like that.”

McNeill said The Ville’s Voice reference in the exhibit was “a good first step,” but feels it doesn’t equate to a formal acknowledgement of the community organizers’ efforts in the restoration project. 

Jones said he hopes to be able to have more involvement in the community center’s development under the leadership of Fayetteville-Cumberland Parks and Recreation. 

“We want to be included in the process, because at the end of the day, it started with us just wanting to help these kids and help the next generation,” Jones said. 

The city aims to have the full restoration project completed this summer, Bymer said. The former school will host STEM education programs and the Greater Life of Fayetteville, aiming to “increase opportunities in Cultural Arts and STEM outside of the traditional school setting,” according to Bymer. 

The general contractor for the site told CityView on Wednesday that the inside renovations and repairs should be done in about three weeks. After the renovations are completed, the new equipment for programs will need to be installed. 

Pinckney said she was excited to have Greater Life operate out of the school, expressing gratitude toward the county, city, and parks and recreation department.  

“We are so excited,” Pinckney said. “Because years ago when I first came here, someone told me that I would never be able to get into the Orange Street School, so look how God operated everything in the way he did.”

Contact Evey Weisblat at eweisblat@cityviewnc.com or 216-527-3608. 

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Orange Street School, Black history, Fayetteville History Museum, Fayetteville