By Ernie Murray
Most people know that the RMHS at its present site first opened its doors to students in 1953. Most know, too, that it was 1969 when Booker T. closed its doors making RMHS the only Rocky Mount high school. Few however realize that the RMHS of today dates all the way back to the beginning of the last century, and although the buildings have changed, the school’s character and identity was already set when the name of the building in which RMHS was housed had other names-- like Lincoln and Edgemont. As the students in those old Rocky Mount high schools lived, learned and excelled, and eventually moved on to newer school buildings and locations, they were steadily moving toward the unified RMHS of today and bringing with them the best of all the Rocky Mount high schools that had gone before.
It all started in the last year of the 19th Century. In that year, 1900, North Carolina’s great education-Governor, Charles B. Aycock, toured the State urging local communities to organize and fund free public graded schools for the education of North Carolina’s youth. Governor Aycock spoke in Rocky Mount at the Masonic Opera House, asking his audience to open public schools for the young people of the city.
How the citizens of Rocky Mount responded to the Governor’s call gives a glimpse of the state of race relations in our town at the threshold of the twentieth century. The General Assembly’s Act of January 30,1901 that created the Rocky Mount Graded School District designated it as “a public school district for white and colored children.” Certainly it is disappointing that the Act did not simply refer to “children,” but at the same time it is encouraging that the then disenfranchised and often-overlooked African-American community was specifically included in the Act. Even more positive is the fact that the inclusive language of the Act was not just empty language to be ignored by a white community establishing schools for the white children before addressing the needs of their “colored” counterparts: The promise of the Act of 1901 was actually honored and schools opened for both black and white children later that same year.
The Rocky Mount Graded School for Colored Children was opened in 1901 near the corner of West Thomas and North Grace Streets where the office building known as One Federal Square is now located. It was initially known simply as “the Negro school,” but by 1914 had officially been named “Lincoln Graded School.”
The Rocky Mount Graded School (this one was for white children) was also opened in 1901. It was located at the corner of Pearl and Nash Streets on the site that is now occupied by the James Craig Braswell Elementary School. It was at first known as “the Graded School,” and became known soon after as Rocky Mount Graded School-West, unofficially as “West School.”
Neither Lincoln School nor West School had any separate high school department. Public schools offered only ten grades in those days, and those who completed the tenth grade satisfactorily were awarded high school diplomas and declared graduates. The first graduating class in Rocky Mount was the Class of 1902. There were six graduates!
In 1909 the Rocky Mount Graded School-East was opened for white children and featured a new educational concept—a formal and completely separate high school department. This school was initially called simply “East School,” and the older school on Pearl Street received the name “Old West” to distinguish it. East School, soon called “Old East,” was located on the present site of the R.M.Wilson Gymnasium and the R.M.Wilson Home for the Elderly, although none of that original structure survives. The high school department was not housed at Old East for very long.
The brand-new Edgemont School on Cokey Road opened in 1914. In 1915 the white Rocky Mount high school department moved to this new facility (later it was the Fannie Gorham School and is now the Rocky Mount Judicial Center) and the elementary students were removed to Old East. The high school occupied the entire Edgemont facility, leading to some confusion about the official name of the school thereafter: Was it Edgemont School or Rocky Mount High School? Both names were probably used interchangeably. (The 1920 Annual, the HiNocAr claims to be produced by students of Rocky Mount High School, but a photograph in the same yearbook showing the building housing the high school is labeled Edgemont School and the student newspaper during this time was called The Edgemont Eko. School cheers recorded in the 1923 HiNocAr include yells for “Edgemont” while others extol “R.M.H.S.”) The most accurate description of the situation during these years is probably that the Rocky Mount high school was located in the Edgemont School building. High school at that time had increased to eleven grades and began in the eighth grade.
Tragedy struck Lincoln School in 1918 when fire destroyed its main wood frame building. For the next three years, African-American high school students were crowded into six classrooms in the lone building that was spared the ravages of the fire, while elementary students were schooled in local churches. In 1921 a new brick building was completed on the former Lincoln School site. It was named the Abraham Lincoln School and the black Rocky Mount high school department was housed in it (along with the elementary students).
The year 1927 was one of far-reaching and long-lasting changes for high school students of both races. In that year, the brand-new Booker T. Washington High School was completed and opened its doors to all the black high school students of Rocky Mount. Although additions were made over the years, the “Booker T” facility served virtually all of Rocky Mount’s African-American high school students until 1969. The Booker T. Washington campus on Virginia Street was converted to a community center after 1969 and still serves that function today.
Also in 1927, substantial renovations were completed at Old East. The white high school department was then moved from the Edgemont building to Old East which was officially named Rocky Mount High School. It, too, underwent additions over the years (most notably in 1938 to accommodate the upcoming requirement of 12 years of schooling to earn a high school diploma), but it continued to serve as the white high school until 1953.
In the fall of 1953, the original portions of the present RMHS campus were opened. At that time a new grade structure was implemented. It was a new educational concept and Rocky Mount was a leader in the State when it changed its grade structure from 8 years of elementary school followed by 4 years of high school to 6 years of elementary school followed by 3 years of juniorhigh school, followed by 3 years of senior high school. The former Rocky Mount High School was renamed for its former principal (and later City Schools Superintendent) Robert MacArthur Wilson and began serving the junior high grades (7-9), while the tenth through twelfth graders moved to Tillery Street to attend the new Rocky Mount Senior High School. For its first 10 years, the school operated as an all-white school and all African-American students continued to attend Booker T. Washington.
The first tentative steps toward integration took place in 1963 when the very first African-American students chose to attend Rocky Mount Senior High School under the Freedom of Choice law. For the next few years, the student population included small numbers of black students while the vast majority continued to attend Booker T. Washington High School until the two schools merged in 1969.
The Rocky Mount High School of today actually took its present form in the 1968-69 school year. By then the decision had already been reached to close Booker T. Washington and to educate all of Rocky Mount’s high school students at an enlarged RMSH facility. If the actual merger in the fall of 1969 was to be a marriage of two fine traditions into a new entity, the 1968-69 school year was the engagement period. Significant construction took place at RMSH to accommodate the influx of students from Booker T. Also, student, faculty and community committees from both schools worked hard to meld the two into one new school while preserving the best of each. The old mascots, the Blackbirds and the Lions, were not cast off or discarded; rather they were reverently retired in favor of a new mascot – part bird, part lion – that symbolized the continuation, rather than the termination, of both hallowed traditions. The royal blue and gold of Booker T. Washington and the black and gold that Rocky Mount Senior High had inherited from the old Rocky Mount High School on Marigold Street were combined, not discarded. The color “blue-black” (actually, dark navy blue) was adopted by the student body to go with the gold that was already common to both schools. Student government, cheerleading, and similar activities were to be shared between students from the predecessor schools by a formula that strove for equitable apportionment. The principalship was to be shared and the faculties combined. The stage was well prepared for a merger that incorporated, respected and preserved both traditions.
In 1969 a newly constituted Rocky Mount Senior High School opened its doors to students who had been at the old RMSH or Booker T. Washington the year before. The first years of a marriage are usually the toughest, and some rocky times were experienced early in the merger of these two schools, but the marriage strengthened in time to produce a single united entity. As in a good marriage, at the same time that this new entity is made up solely of its two predecessor entities and therefore forms a continuation of both, it somehow amounts to something more and greater than the sum of its predecessor parts.
In 1992 the Rocky Mount City Schools merged with the Nash County Schools and RMSH joined Northern Nash Senior High School and Southern Nash Senior High School as one of three senior high schools in the Nash-Rocky Mount School System. In 2003, Nash Central High School opened making Senior High one of four high schools in the system. At that time, RMHS went back to the 9-12 grade format, eliminating junior and senior high schools in favor of elementary (k-5), middle (6-8) and high (9-12) schools. With no senior high schools anymore, the School Board ordered the name “Senior” deleted from the school’s name, reverting from the name of the past half-century---Rocky Mount Senior High (RMSH)---to the name the school had born for the first half-century of its existence---Rocky Mount High School (RMHS). Despite the official name change, the name Senior High has become too entrenched to be discarded. Most graduates still refer to their younger days at “Senior High” and current students still tell their friends that they attend “Senior High.”
For over a third of a century, Rocky Mount High School, in its present form and at its present location, has carried on the tradition of excellence in education begun separately and on a much smaller scale in 1901. Its graduates have joined other Rocky Mount graduates in contributing to the betterment of our city, our state and our nation. Since that small start in 1901, Rocky Mount high school students have been segregated, moved around, burned out, moved some more, and finally united. Senior High’s roots run deep, through various locations and names like Old East and West, Abraham Lincoln, Edgemont, and Booker T. Washington, but through all those years and all those changes, its identity, its continuity and most recently, its remarkable unity have remained unbroken. Though its light was conceived in the dimness of racial division and at times has flickered, its flame has never faltered. It is the light of alma mater, Rocky Mount High School, now shining proudly into the 21st century.