By Renee Elder
The fate of a 60,000-square-foot former elementary school may rest on the ability of Scotland County to pay for its restoration and ongoing maintenance.
But for many, the dollars-and-cents value of the former I.E. Johnson School doesn’t reflect its important role in the lives of Laurinburg’s Black community.
“They are arguing that because it is an old school, it’s not worth investing the money,” Scotland County Commissioner Darrel “B.J.” Gibson said. “I say, when you get old, that’s the time you need to put in some resources.”
Named for pioneering African American educator I. Ellis Johnson, the school has long served as a center for education, after-school recreation and community get-togethers. Now it has become a rallying point for neighbors struggling to make ends meet in north Laurinburg.
Scotland County took a significant economic blow as industrial jobs such as textile manufacturing diminished in the United States over the past two decades. Although some new companies have recently moved into the area, good-paying jobs remain scarce.
U.S. Census figures show that residents closest to the former school have a median annual household income that is below $25,000, compared to Laurinburg’s average of $31,000 and the statewide figure of $54,000.
While some have proposed selling the I.E. Johnson site for redevelopment by a private company, others would prefer to see a community resource center, perhaps with tutoring, health services, recreational offerings and other amenities lacking in the area.
“We know the quote: Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” said Willie Hill, a nearby resident and proponent of revamping the school for neighborhood use. “This side of town has always been neglected. It’s disheartening.”
Diversity in community
Laurinburg was originally part of Richmond County when it was incorporated in 1877. By the late 1800s, Richmond, which had a narrow Black majority, became known as a “Republican-dominated county with a Democrat-dominated state,” wrote North Carolina historian Gael Graham in the January 2012 edition of the North Carolina Historical Review.
In response, white Democrats consolidated power in Laurinburg and, in 1899, the city and surrounding area broke off from Richmond County to establish Scotland County, Graham wrote. At that time, Black influence in Laurinburg began to wane, as did funding for schools and other amenities for Black residents, leading to the establishment in 1904 of the Laurinburg Normal Industrial Institute, later known as Laurinburg Academy, where Blacks could be better educated.
Today, about 43% of people in Scotland County are white and 40% are Black. In Laurinburg, whites make up 37% of the population and Blacks make up 49%. The census tracts closest to I.E. Johnson are more than 80% Black, according to the Census Bureau.
‘No investment happening’
In 2007, a recreation center for the town of Wagram was created and has since served as a resource for community meetings, health seminars, exercise programs and pick-up basketball games, among other functions. Indoor activities have been limited, however, since thieves stole the building’s air conditioning unit in 2017. About $50,000 in funding to replace the system was authorized recently by the county commission.
In July, the commissioners awarded a contract of about $2.8 million for a recreation center in the community of Laurel Hill.
Now, residents in north Laurinburg believe it’s their turn for some capital improvements.
“We still have dirt roads on this side of town,” Hill said. We once had a water treatment facility that has been closed. There’s really no investment happening on this side of town.”
Among the most painful impacts of closing the I.E. Johnson school was the loss of its gymnasium, used by many in the surrounding neighborhoods and beyond.
“I spent hours playing basketball there myself,” said Laurinburg Mayor Jim Willis.
The only other nearby option for recreational basketball is an outdoor court, where youth can be seen playing by headlamps of parked cars in the early evening.
Meanwhile, south Laurinburg has the James L. Morgan Recreation Complex on Turnpike Road. Supported by a nonprofit foundation and established on donated land, the 53-acre park includes baseball facilities, soccer fields, picnic areas, a playground and disc golf.
Also south of downtown is the award-winning Hammond Park, a 5.5-acre tract with open space, a playground and paved walking track, which was developed by the county with help from the city of Laurinburg.
The I.E. Johnson School building at 815 McGirts Bridge Road was taken out of operation by the school system in 2019 as part of a school consolidation program. Discussions over the future of the 60-plus-year-old building have been ongoing ever since.
Scotland County commissioners called a special meeting Aug. 9 to discuss the building and were greeted by a large crowd of concerned citizens.
Commissioner Tim Ivey noted that the school system had offered to give the school to the county if it were willing to take over the upkeep, but explained that the project would require $300,000 in initial funding, plus up to $50,000 in annual expenses.
The commission will meet again on Sept. 7 to learn more about the anticipated costs, a move that frustrates some.
“You ask for something in one meeting and we provide it, so you ask for something else at the next meeting,” Hill said. “The greater question is if not now, when? Every time we come to the table, it’s ‘not now.’”
Forward movement on the I.E. Johnson property may be stalled by the fact that it is inside the city limits of Laurinburg, yet the county is being asked to fund the improvements.
The county-city divide is a sort of unwritten rule, according to Willis.
“County commissioners clearly believe they take care of anything outside the city limits; inside, it’s on us,” the mayor added.
Another factor commissioners are weighing is a planned community center from the nonprofit Partners in Ministry. The group already serves children, seniors and others in need with a food pantry, computer lab, after-school tutoring, help with applying for food assistance or Medicaid, and many other services.
The center is in east Laurinburg, just a mile and a half from the former I.E. Johnson Elementary.
“Partners in Ministry recently asked us and the county to give them $400,000,” Willis said. “They do some really good stuff. There are lots of people trying to do good things, but it’s not coordinated.”
The Methodist-sponsored Partners group has so far been unsuccessful in its requests for government funding, as both Laurinburg and Scotland County struggle to meet basic needs through their annual budgets.
Scotland County is by geography the smallest of North Carolina’s 100 counties. It relies on a 2% sales tax and property taxes for income.
However, about a third of the land inside the county is owned by the state or federal government in the form of U.S. Forestry and military land, and generates no tax income.
Despite limited money to go around, the crowd at Monday’s commission meeting may be a sign of things to come, said Gibson, the county commissioner.
“The community has stepped up; it was standing room only,” he said. “They’ve started showing up.”
Renee Elder is a freelance writer in North Carolina. If you have questions about this story, contact Border Belt Independent Editor Sarah Nagem at firstname.lastname@example.org.