Alumni Plan To Give County’s First Secondary School For Black Students a Second Life

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The former Mary Nottingham Smith High School/Middle School near Accomac is now a cultural center. Photo courtesy of MNS Alumni Association.

By Carol Vaughn —

Planning for the future of the former Mary N. Smith School, now called the Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center, is making strides after Accomack County, on behalf of the MNS Alumni Association, was awarded a $10,000 grant a year ago.

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development awarded the pre-planning grant in February 2020. Among requirements was to collect information from the community about potential uses for the property.

Since then, meetings were held and a survey conducted to get input about what the community wants to see happen at the former school near Accomac.

Survey results are still being compiled and analyzed, but as of Feb. 18, the project management team had received 132 responses. Of those, the following indicated some top uses respondents want:
Rental space — 99
Senior Activities — 84
Culinary School — 66
Fitness and Health — 64
Business Incubator — 47.

Additional responses were gathered during three virtual meetings in February.

The next step is to apply for another DHCD grant, which if awarded will pay for engineering, architectural, and environmental studies and design.

“As you go through these phases, the amount of grant funds that are available continues to increase, so hopefully we can move into some type of improvement grant towards the end, in the future, to do some of the things that we are trying to identify right now as what the residents would like to see, what the alumni association wants to do,” said Accomack County Administrator Mike Mason, a project management team member, during the Feb. 20 meeting.

The center is owned and managed by the Mary N. Smith Alumni Association and governed by a board of directors.

The alumni organization includes graduates from between 1935 and 1970—the last year MNS was a high school before it became a middle school after desegregation.

The center — formerly the only high school for Black county residents— holds a fond place in the hearts of alumni, many of whom retain close bonds with former schoolmates.

Lester Williams, who lives near Richmond but who grew up in Bloxom, is among them.

After attending elementary school in Mappsville, Williams came to MNS in 8th grade and graduated in 1961.

There were around 200 students, coming from as far away as Chincoteague, Williams said in a telephone interview.

Entering 9th grade the next year meant they were real high schoolers and could join clubs and participate in school plays, dances, and the like.

“We enjoyed every bit of it,” he said, recalling with fondness Mr. Cooper’s shop class.

“I just enjoyed woodworking. Even when my parents passed, they still had a couple of end tables and a bookcase that I made when I was there,” he said.

“The members of the class, we stay in touch,” Williams said.

After college at Virginia Union, where he met his wife of 53 years, Williams returned to Accomack County to teach at North Accomack Elementary School. He later taught at Parksley High School and Arcadia High School, mainly science and math, before returning to MNS, by then a middle school, to teach from 1980 to 1997, when he retired.

Williams and his wife return often for events at the MNS center.

“I am so proud of the fact of what they are doing,” Williams said about recent efforts.

Kelvin Pettit, alumni association president, graduated in 1967.

Teachers and other staff let students know they had high expectations for them “to fulfill your full potential,” he said in a telephone interview.

“All that you heard was the need to achieve. …Being as good, for us, wasn’t good enough.”

Karen Downing, alumni association secretary and publicity chairperson, attended MNS in 8th grade, when it was a middle school.

Among teachers she recalls fondly is the late Doris Doughty, who taught literature. “From that experience, I gained a great love of literature,” she said.

Home economics teacher Peggy Riley (Corbin) “was the one that prepared (us with) life skills,” Downing said.

History teacher Delores Deloatch and assistant principal Franklin Carr also made positive impressions.

Students she met that year “became lifelong friends,” she said.

Downing’s mother and father and other relatives graduated from MNS High School and her brother also attended middle school there.

The school is “near and dear to me personally,” she said.

The Mission
“The center’s mission is to “provide a place that will foster an environment where the physical, cultural, educational, and social needs of the community are met. The center will incorporate activities which encourage physical fitness, mental stability, and economic security,” according to its website.

It was Pettit who in January 2011 presented to the Accomack County Board of Supervisors a proposal that the property be turned over to the alumni association.

“We knew initially that we were going to have to, one, prove our worth, and that we were indeed going to be steadfast in our commitment,” Pettit said.

Starting out with smaller projects and lots of volunteerism, helped by a grant, resulted in installation of a commercial kitchen, renovations to the cafeteria (now a multi-purpose room), and installation of heating and air conditioning in the gymnasium, making it a usable facility for events.

“We identified these as the steps we were going to take to kind of embolden ourselves with the community. …Now that we’ve shown that we can do this, will do this, are committed to it…we will move into the next phase of really making it a functional community center that addresses the needs and the concerns of the citizens,” Pettit said.

He emphasized, although the alumni association holds title to the property, the goal is for the center to serve the entire community, not just alumni.

“We want people to take ownership of it as a community and dispel the notion that you have to be an alumni. …We really want it to be considered a community property that responds to the needs of the community.”

The alumni association at present has agreements with several organizations to use space — including Eastern Shore Area Agency on Aging/Comunity Action Agency (senior center); the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia-Eastern Shore Branch (Food Hub program); In-Touch Academy (youth mentoring program); Salvation Army; and a home health agency.

The Boys & Girls Club is a prospective partner.

The center in the past several years was the site of many activities and events, including the popular Green Book concert in February 2020 — among the last events held there before Virginia shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the pandemic put a halt to many activities, the project management team has remained active.

As planning progresses, the team needs additional members, according to Downing. Additionally, marketing, historic designation, and fund development committees are in the works and need members..

“This is more of a marathon than a sprint. We are in the collection of information phase, then going into the planning phase,” Downing said.

“We want it to be a symbol of what you can do when you work together,” Pettit said.

Anyone interested in joining a committee should email mnsgrants15@gmail.com
For up-to-date information about the Mary N. Smith Center for Cultural Enrichment, visit the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MaryNSmith2011
The physical location is:
24577 Mary N. Smith Road
Accomac, Virginia 23301
The mailing address (including for donations) is:
P.O. Box 915
Accomac, VA 23301.

Mary Nottingham Smith Biography (taken from Arthur K. Fisher’s biography of Mary N. Smith and from MNS Alumni Association Facebook posts)

Smith was born on Aug. 22, 1882, in Townsend, to John W. and Fannie Wright Nottingham.

She married Robert Smith and although they never had children, they raised her niece, Barbara Upshur Mossett.

After graduating from Hampton Institute, Smith taught in Essex County, Va., and Townsend, and later was Supervisor of Schools in Concordia Parish, Louisiana.

Smith returned to the Eastern Shore in 1920, after she was recruited to supervise education of Black students in Accomack County.

Smith thought the county needed a new high school for blacks and she started fundraising efforts.

It wasn’t an easy process to get the school built.

Smith raised money by seeking help from Black churches, asking local farmers to donate vegetables, and getting support from teachers in the county’s many one- and two-room schoolhouses, according to Fisher’s book.

Smith got her wish in 1932, when a high school for Black students opened in Accomac. Two years later, the school board named the building for her.

That building by the late 1940s was overcrowded and construction began north of town on a new high school. The name was retained, and the new Mary N. Smith High School, the present building, opened in 1953.

Smith didn’t live to see students in the school — she collapsed on Dec. 30, 1951, as she was about to drive to the school board office and died the same day. She was 69.

Smith is buried at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Capeville.

Smith spent 32 as an educator in Accomack County.

Prior to Mary Nottingham Smith High School being built, Black children attended classes in one- or two-room buildings heated by potbellied wood or coal stoves. Some of the little schools were named: Jerusalem, Horntown, Oaks, St. John, Wattsville, Withams, Mappsville, Whitesville, Onancock, Savageville, Burton, Trower, Belle Haven, Pungoteague, Boston and Mt. Zion.

An historic marker marks the site of the original Mary Nottingham Smith High School in Accomac. Photo courtesy of MNS Alumni Association.

Mary N. Smith School/Cultural Enrichment Center Timeline

1931 – J. Edgar Thomas, Susie Wharton Thomas, and William H. Bailey sold a .842 acre lot in Accomac to trustees of the Accomack County Colored High School Association for $750.

1932 – The first secondary school for Black students in Accomack County was built and named for Mary Nottingham Smith, a trustee of the school and educator. Smith had worked in the Accomack County public school system since 1921 as a Jeanes Educational Supervisor.

1953 – A larger high school, also named for Smith, was built on a site farther north in Accomac, near Route 13. The 1932 school building was renamed T. C. Walker Elementary School, named after an African-American attorney. That building was demolished in 1987.

1970 – Mary Nottingham Smith High School became Mary Nottingham Smith Middle School when Accomack County public schools were desegregated.

2004 – Mary Nottingham Smith Middle School closed after the school district constructed new middle school buildings.

January 2011 – The Accomack County Board of Supervisors voted to turn the property over to the Mary N. Smith Alumni Association, Inc. for use as a cultural center.

March 2011 – The alumni association became an incorporated 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.

March 2012 – The alumni association received approval from the Accomack County Board of Zoning Appeals for a special use permit to use the building as a recreational center.

2014 – Eastern Shore of Virginia Community Foundation awarded $40,000 to MNS Alumni Association for first phase of renovations; alumni and others also raised $23,000 towards the effort, which includes accessible restrooms, ramps, and HVAC improvements.

September 2019 – HVAC installation in gymnasium and main hallway was completed.

February 2020 – Virginia Department of Housing and Commjnity Development awarded $10,000 pre-planning grant to Accomack County on behalf of the MNS Alumni Association.

2020-2021 – Community meetings were held and a survey conducted to gather information on how residents want to see the center used.

COMING April 2021 – Apply to DHCH for a planning grant, which if awarded will help pay for architectural, engineering, and environmental studies and design.

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