One of the major endeavors of Quakers has always been education —not just education for a select few or for males only, but education for all regardless of gender or class. After the Civil War, Quakers realized that there was a desperate need to educate recently freed slaves. Those newly freed men and women needed to learn how to read and write. Former slaves also needed a means of supporting themselves. In order to provide the necessary education, Quakers began establishing Normal (teaching) and Industrial schools across the South.
One such school was Asheboro Normal School for Colored, located in Asheboro, North Carolina. It was established in the 1880s by the Mission Board of New York Yearly Meeting. The school served students from the primary grades through the Normal School grades. By 1891, the school in Asheboro had 15 Normal School graduates working as teachers in various locations in the United States and other countries.
By then, the school had outgrown the facility in Asheboro, and it was difficult to find boarding places for the students. Friends and others in High Point, North Carolina, were urging New York Yearly Meeting to move the school to High Point, a town with 3,000 inhabitants, much larger than Asheboro. High Point also had a much larger African American population, and it was on the main railroad line. Friends in High Point assured the Mission Board that four times the amount of public money currently received by the Asheboro school would be apportioned to a school in High Point. Although closing the school in Asheboro was a difficult decision for the Mission Board, they understood that by moving the school to High Point, they could reach three or four times as many people and do more effective work. So, by 1891, the decision to move the school to High Point was made, and subscriptions totaling $1,200 were pledged.
The Asheboro Normal School for Colored was placed under the care of the trustees of the Asheboro Public School system.
At the start of the 1892 school year, the school in High Point opened in a two-room building owned by the county. But, as 193 students enrolled at the school (125 of them during the winter months), the school now faced the problem of where to seat everyone. It was solved by seating four or five students at desks intended for two, and seating some of the smaller students at teachers’ desks and on the platforms near the teachers. One-fourth of the students that first year were adults ranging in age from 16 to 64, and there were also ten married students.
The advanced students were under the care of W. Elmer Meade, the principal. The younger students were under the direction of Annie Eliza Lofton. Before the end of the school year, Meade resigned to accept a position as assistant superintendent of a Northern asylum, and Frank H. Clark was appointed as the new principal.
In 1894 Cynthia Anthony, a teacher at the school, wrote that "the building was very cheaply constructed, now weather-beaten and almost unfit for shelter in stormy weather, originally intended for 50 or 60 scholars, has been occupied by our school for the past three years, with an enrollment of over 200 and an attendance at times of 150. Two years since we resolved to build a suitable schoolhouse and extend the scope of the work." During the two years, the subject of building a new schoolhouse was kept constantly before Friends until the go-ahead for a new building was given. In April 1894, a contract was signed for a new school building. The building was to be 50 by 65 feet, two stories, built in a substantial manner, and adapted to the present needs in every way. The building alone would cost about $2,800. This new building was completed on July 15, 1894.
In 1895 it was noted in the minutes of the Home and Foreign Missions Board that "upon approaching High Point by railroad from the south, the most commanding object to be seen is the new school building erected by us last year. It is upon high ground about one-half mile from the railroad station and it presents a very attractive appearance."
The Southern Committee of the Board of Home and Foreign Missions had been studying the industrial work at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. It was determined that High Point Normal and Industrial Institute needed a new principal. The Southern Committee consulted with Booker T. Washington to assist with finding a suitable candidate. Washington recommended Alfred J. Griffin, a graduate of St. Augustine College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
In 1898, Griffin took over as principal of the school. The 1898 school year began with an enrollment of 200 day students and 32 boarding students. But only two years later, the school was once again facing overcrowding. Its enrollment had reached 250 students—206 day students and 44 boarding students. The school was forced to turn away more than 50 students who had applied to be boarding students in the industrial program. The building of Congdon Hall, named for Ellen L. Congdon, a member of New York Yearly Meeting, solved the overcrowding issue. It was used as a dormitory for the female students. The school also operated an 80-acre farm, which provided food for the school and functioned as a teaching tool.
On January 26, 1909, the school suffered a disastrous fire. By the time the fire was discovered, the main building and its contents were totally destroyed. Fortunately, the 12 young men who lived in the upper part of the building escaped unharmed.
The next year, the students built a new building to replace the one destroyed in the fire. With the exception of tinning the roof and installing a furnace, the work of rebuilding was done entirely by the students. The industrial department of the school had courses in carpentry, bricklaying, blacksmithing, and masonry, which provided the young men with the knowledge needed to take on a project of this kind.
Enrollment in High Point Normal and Industrial Institute reached an alltime high in 1914, when 724 students enrolled, 118 of whom were boarding students. Among the courses offered were plane geometry, geometry, algebra, pedagogy, English, astronomy, American literature, physics, geology, cooking, sewing, basketry, dressmaking, bookkeeping, rhetoric and composition, drawing, and botany. The students were also required to attend daily devotionals, church services, Christian endeavor, and Sabbath school.
In 1920, in recognition of the quality of work being done at High Point Normal and Industrial Institute, North Carolina’s Department of Education issued a two-year teacher’s certificate to each graduate of the normal school program, and a personal representative was sent to award these certificates at commencement. High Point Normal and Industrial Institute was the first private school to receive such recognition by the state.
The school underwent its biggest adjustment in 1923 when New York Yearly Meeting was experiencing financial difficulties. School did not start until October that year because it was uncertain whether New York Yearly Meeting could maintain the school. This was also the last year of Alfred Griffin’s term as principal. Griffin resigned, but remained on staff to become a history teacher. E.E. Curtwright became the principal and under his leadership, the school was awarded an accredited class rating of "A" for Negro high schools from the Southern Association of Colleges and High Schools. In 1924, High Point Normal and Industrial Institute became a part of High Point’s public school system. During Curtwright’s tenure, almost 500 students graduated—386 in secondary education and 104 in religious education. From 1924 to 1927, the school was known as the Normal High School. In 1927, the name was changed to William Penn High School to honor the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania.
At the end of the 1932-1933 school year Curtwright tendered his resignation, citing poor health as the reason. He died a short time later. At the start of the 1933-1934 school year, Samuel E. Burford, a native of Lynchburg, Virginia, was selected as the new principal. He would be the final principal of William Penn High School.
Burford believed his students could accomplish great things. He mentored several students whose names would become household terms not just in High Point, but nationally and even internationally. Among the students mentored by Burford were John Coltrane, worldrenowned jazz saxophonist; Sammie Chess, North Carolina’s first African American superior court judge appointed in the 20th century; and Robert Brown, a special assistant to President Richard Nixon. Burford saw potential in William Brower when he told the student about Wilberforce University, a historically black university in Xenia, Ohio. Brower applied, and was accepted to Wilberforce. He embarked on a groundbreaking career in journalism, and he was later nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for a series about the shame of racial violence.
On February 11, 1960, students at William Penn High School made history by holding the first documented sit-in by high school students. Thirty students, who had been coached in peaceful protest by local ministers, marched to the local Woolworth store and took seats at the lunch counter. They waited quietly and later marched back to the school.
Samuel E. Burford served the school until it was closed in 1968 due to integration. Burford would then become the principal of T. Wingate Andrews High School, the newest high school in High Point. He was the first African American in High Point to become the principal of a predominately white high school.
In 1968, the doors to William Penn High School were closed. The building was used occasionally as an alternative school and for community meetings. A portion of the building was used as the Carl Chavis YMCA, the African American branch of the YMCA. The YMCA took its name from Chavis, a Purple Heart recipient in World War II who was a Penn graduate. Eventually, the elements and vandals took their toll on the once stately building. By the mid- 1970s, it was damaged almost beyond repair. According to a report in the Greensboro News and Record by staff writer Lorraine Ahearn on August 30, 2009, Dot Kearns, former Guilford County School Board member, recalls walking through the building after it was condemned. She recalled that the hallways had been vandalized, windows were broken out and birds flying through the empty windows. When former Penn student Mary Lou Blankeney moved back to High Point in 1996, she found that the once polished stage in the auditorium had been badly neglected, the curtains were nothing more than tatters, and all of the seats in the auditorium were gone. The once beautiful Georgian revival building was left to deteriorate steadily until a group of citizens of both races came together to raise money and formulate a plan to save it. They raised $400,000 to have the building swept and reroofed; however, it would be many years before the school would once again be used as a school for students in Guilford County. After many late night meetings, it was finally determined that the school would be reopened as a magnet school. In 1996 major renovations began, and a new wing named in honor of John Coltrane was added to the existing building. In 2003, the former William Penn High School became William Penn-Alfred J. Griffin School for the Arts. In 2006, the high school program started. One grade per year was added until 2010 when, on June 2, the first graduating class since 1968 walked proudly across the stage of Samuel Burford Auditorium.
Today, the course offerings are different from those of the 1890s. Instead of bricklaying, carpentry, dressmaking, millinery, and household management, the school now offers classes in visual arts, drama, chorus, piano, band, orchestra, guitar, and dance. The Quakers of the 1890s might be a bit appalled by the course offerings of today; however, the school founded by Quakers and named for a Quaker is still offering a quality education for students in today’s world. William Penn-Alfred J. Griffin School for the Arts is once again the heart of what will soon be the Washington Street National Historic District. The historic school has finally come full circle.