WESTFIELD — Remembrance will be the theme for the Ridge Westfield School reunion next weekend as former students recall its past, but they’re also looking to the future and a campaign to preserve the old campus.
“We just don’t want this to go down,” Lizzie Penn James of Pinnacle, one of those students, said of the need to improve the facility that served African-American children. The former school sits alongside Chestnut Ridge Primitive Progressive Baptist Church on N.C. 89 near Westfield.
That objective of refurbishing the structure will be on the minds of former classmates who’ll gather at the church this coming Saturday for the third-annual Ridge Westfield School Reunion. It begins at 11 a.m., with a variety of activities planned throughout the day.
Elder Emmanuel Jessup, a local reverend and an alumnus of the school, will deliver a special message in honor of the occasion and there will be music and other activities. Aside from the formal portions of the reunion, attendees will be able to mingle and remember their days at the campus.
A meal also will be held in the church basement, with attendees asked to bring a covered dish.
While the reunion is to include the customary fellowship and meal, the present condition of the old school building next door to the church will provide additional food for thought.
It is a relatively new facility, built in 1954 to replace a Rosenwald school that once served the area’s African-American community. Rosenwald refers to the thousands of schools that were built primarily for that population in the early 20th century through a fund created by Julius Rosenwald, a clothier who became part-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company.
Chestnut Ridge Colored School and Westfield Colored School had served that area, but were closed in favor of a new campus at the present site which combined those two names to form Ridge-Westfield, according to a school history by LaShene Lowe.
James, the chief reunion organizer, recalls an old school building being located near where the church graveyard is now.
Ridge Westfield Elementary School was the largest feeder school to J.J. Jones High in Mount Airy.
But as segregation took hold in the mid-to-late 1960s, local African-American students were absorbed into formerly all-white schools and Ridge Westfield fell by the educational wayside.
The structure has deteriorated in the years since, leading to recent plans for a “save the school” campaign.
“I attended there from the time I started school,” said James, who after completing the elementary grades there migrated to J.J. Jones for one year before graduating from North Surry High School.
James hopes money can be raised through donations from former students and the public at large to prevent any further deterioration, and allow the structure to be improved so it could be used as a senior center or similar facility.
The improvement campaign seeks to start at the top of the old school, so to speak.
“If we can get a roof on it, then hopefully we won’t have to be in a rush to get everything else done,” James said of the need to curtail leakage and water damage inside.
Now owned by the church, no one is allowed to go inside the school because of its condition. “All we can do is walk around (outside) and look at the windows,” James said.
“That’s what we want to do, is get the roof fixed so we can go inside that building.”
With the fundraising campaign now just getting organized (with more details to be announced later), no target amount has been pinpointed for the improvement project.
“Just to get the roof on there is probably over $20,000,” James said, adding that one good thing is the school does not contain asbestos.
“We just want to preserve that school because it’s a historic site, really.”
Penn To Be Recalled
Along with assembling Saturday to share their common experience at Ridge Westfield School, the reunion will provide participants an opportunity to remember others educated there. This will include members of the school community who have died.
One focus will be the late Sonnie Perry Penn, one of the many distinguished alumni of Ridge Westfield, who completed his elementary education there.
Penn graduated from Ridge Westfield in 1960 and then attended J.J. Jones High, where he received his diploma in 1964.
James said that in addition to others who attended Ridge Westfield School, a special invitation to Saturday’s reunion is extended to members of Penn’s 1960 elementary graduating class there and others in the Jones High Class of 1964.
Penn, the son of the Rev. Eddie and Nannie L. Moore Penn, was an example of the best and brightest produced by Ridge Westfield, attending Elizabeth City State University to obtain his undergraduate degree in elementary education.
He then began a career in Northern Virginia that included being a teacher and later a principal in Prince William County.
After Penn died in 1996 at age 49, he was so highly regarded that a new campus there was named Sonnie Penn Elementary in his honor. James recalled that about 5,000 people filled a chapel for his funeral.
Penn was married to the former Edna Hargrove and the couple had two children, Shawn and Tamara.
Made Do With Less
Ridge Westfield Elementary School operated at a time when there were no computers or other educational frills, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
“As a black school, you didn’t get what the other schools were getting as far as materials and things,” James remembers. This means teachers had to improvise with what they had available, such as using brown wrapping paper from a meat business in Mount Airy for art lessons.
But such creativity with limited resources — coupled with an emphasis on prayer and patriotism — helped produce a student body that was high-achieving compared to others in the area.
“We’ve turned out doctors, lawyers and educators with doctorate degrees,” James said proudly.
“I guess we’ve had about nine or 10 preachers come out of that school.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.