By Christa Watson
NCCU Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE
Standing proud just south of the Durham Freeway in the Rolling Hills neighborhood of the historic Hayti district is a building that once-upon-a-time thrived with high school and junior high school students. For about 30 years the abandoned building on Umstead Street – built as Hillside Park High School in 1922 – has been waiting patiently to be rescued.
The old high school building, built in the neoclassical architectural style, became Whitted Junior High School in 1949 when its students – and name – were swapped with the Whitted Junior High School that was located on nearby Concord and East Lawson streets.
This building, Hillside High School, was another historic landmark to the black community. It was leveled in 2003 to make room for a N.C. Central University expansion west of Fayetteville Street.
Both buildings are colored with the history and memories of Durham’s black community. While Hillside High School was lost, it now looks like Whitted – a.k.a. Hillside Park High School – may be saved.
“An Atlanta developer thought it would be a good idea to convert it, but although there might be a few objections from the community, I think they will be happy overall because the building will be put to use after many years,” said Michael Page, chair of the county commissioners. The county now owns the 98,380 square foot building.
Durham’s county commissioners have voted unanimously to begin working with Durham Public Schools, The Integral Group, an Atlanta-based real estate development firm, and Forty/AM, a Durham-based community development planning firm, to convert the abandoned building into a dual senior housing and pre-Kindergarten facility.
The $15-$18 million rescue plan would bring together funds from Integral and Forty/AM with the county and DPS, along the lines of the Holton Career and Resource Center, a project that brought together funds from the county, city, DPS, Parks and Recreation and Duke University Health Systems to rescue the abandoned Driver Street Holton Middle School.
Three NCCU alumni and their professor like to think that their documentary on the history of Hillside Park/Whitted, “Upbuilding Whitted,” played some a small role in building community support for the Whitted rescue.
The students, Purity Kimaiyo, Chi Brown, and April Simon, along with mass communication associate professor Bruce dePyssler, combined interviews with former Whitted students and teachers with historic images of the school and the Hayti district. The documentary’s jam-packed May premier was at the Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies.
“Our goal was to create awareness about the building,” said Chi Brown, an NCCU alumnus.
Brown got the idea for the documentary one day while taking a shortcut to NCCU. He said the sad state of the beautiful building caught his eye and he started taking photographs.
“It was amazing to see this building vacant. Peeking in through the broken windows, I saw that it looked like a normal classroom … just with a lot of graffiti,” said Brown. “I didn’t go in because of the asbestos sign, so I researched it online and pitched the idea to dePyssler.”
From there, dePyssler recruited Kimaiyo to the project. They did interviews, filming and edited “Upbuilding Whitted,” over the course of a year.
“I wanted to be a part of the team … I wanted to do a documentary,” said Kimaiyo. “During the interviews you’d see how happy the people were reminiscing about Whitted. We learned a lot about their love for the school.”
Simon, according to dePyssler, rescued the project when she came on board to edit over 15 hours of interviews and historical documents down to 30 minutes.
The documentary is full touching moments. A former band director proudly talks about the quality of the band, despite having to play with battered hand-me-downs from white schools.
A former student breaks out into the school song.
Several students recall how their principal would toss his keys down the hall to get the attention of a wayward student.
And one individual recalls how her aging aunt, a Whitted former teacher, “…lost in the haze of Alzheimer’s” would see the building and still recall “That’s my school. That’s my school.”
The documentary chronicles how the history of Whitted runs parallel to the history of the Hayti district.
It takes its name after a 1912 article, “Upbuilding Black Durham,” by W.E.B. Dubois that remarked on the vitality Durham’s black businesses in early 20th century.
It also chronicles the hard hit the district took as a result of urban renewal and the construction of the Durham Freeway, which cut through the heart of the district.
Ultimately Whitted would fall victim to school integration and close in the mid-70s. The DPS-Integral-Forty/AM renovation proposes eight pre-K classrooms and 89 living units for low-income seniors.
A community input meeting is planned, but not yet scheduled for some time in the next 30 days.
“Upbuilding Whitted” will show again on Saturday, February 16 at 3 p.m. at the Hayti Heritage Film Festival, where it is showing as a selection of the N.C. History Comes Alive Film Series, sponsored by the Durham Public Library. The showing will be free and open to the public.