Once upon a time, the old school on Pigeon Street was a striking symbol of divisiveness and inequality.
Since 2003, it’s undergone a remarkable transformation into a place that brings people together. Now, the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center has cause for celebration as it looks to an even brighter future.
“The Pigeon community was marginalized,” said Gregory Wheeler, a Haywood County resident and member of the PCMDC board for 11 years. “We supported ourselves. Back in the 1960s, the Pigeon community was family. Today, we are carrying on that tradition at the PCMDC.”
In 1954, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case had been decided by the Supreme Court, but North Carolina didn’t exactly rush to comply with the ruling. Built in 1957, the Pigeon Street School was the county’s segregated school for Black children; Wheeler said it was built to appease the Black community while still keeping it largely separate from Whites.
Wheeler was a student at the school, and has vivid memories.
“What I remember is, the school we went to, our parents were involved in the school, our grandparents were involved in the school, and the cooks were our grandmothers,” he said. “We were surrounded by the community, and supported by the community. One of the most important things was, our teachers required we say the Pledge of Allegiance every day. They wanted to be sure we were upstanding citizens, going out into a world that would judge us.”
Once North Carolina’s schools were desegregated in the early 1960s, the county used the school as an instructional materials center, and the building languished.
Around 2003, a group called the Pigeon Community Development Club began to use the building in conjunction with another Haywood nonprofit called REACH. In 2009, the Pigeon Center became its own nonprofit.
Since then, the PCMDC has returned to its rightful place at the heart of the community by serving marginalized communities with afterschool programs, summer enrichment sessions and as a gathering place for seniors.
On Saturday, April 29, the PCMDC will host an event commemorating some significant milestones, including one that occurred during COVID but couldn’t be celebrated at that time — just over two years ago, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The event is also meant to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the PCMDC’s summer enrichment program. The program, according to Executive Director Lyn Forney, isn’t child care — it’s meant to help kids through 9th grade sharpen academic skills. The class size is low, and the cost is based on a sliding scale.
Of late, the PCMDC has been relatively successful in fundraising; years of neglect had left the building in terrible shape, but major improvements have been made, including climate control back
However, the continuing need for funding — especially for things grants don’t cover — never really ends.
That’s why the event is also meant to announce the creation of a new fundraising campaign that will help cover staff salaries, insurance, utilities and other operational costs.
To help cover those costs, the PCMDC will begin selling bricks, engraved with the names of the donors or someone else the donors want to recognize. The bricks will be placed in the concrete walkway leading up to the historic school, so that future visitors will know who, exactly, helped sustain the continuing operations of the facility.
Forney said the event will feature desserts and drinks, as well as former students who, like her and Wheeler, can talk about what it was like when they studied there.
“You hear voices from the past when you walk in that building. Memories come flooding in,” Forney said. “Some of those students who were there, those were really their classrooms. We hope they can talk about the times they were there when it was in operation.”
On Saturday, April 29, join the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center for 450 Pigeon St.: A Celebration from 2-4 p.m. The event will take place at the Pigeon Center, 450 Pigeon Street in Waynesville and is free and open to the public. Learn more about the National Register of Historic Places designation, the summer enrichment program, and all the Pigeon Center has to offer. For more information, visit pcmdc.org or call 828.452.7232.