‘Save our black education history in Petersburg’: Alumni fight to save Peabody school

Alumni association holding rally at National Historic Peabody High School Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Published: Oct. 28, 2022 at 11:13 PM EDT
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PETERSBURG, Va. (WWBT) - At over 150 years old, the Peabody High School is credited with being the oldest and first black public high school in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and now alum Dr. Kenneth Lewis says he will do anything to fight for its legacy.

“Inside our little city of Petersburg, we have the treasure of having the oldest public black high school in the entire United States of America,” Lewis said.

But Lewis fears the historic building could be forgotten by time. The Peabody School sits closed on 725 Wesley St. but is the spiritual successor of the original building founded in 1870.

In that 152-year lifespan, the school relocated numerous times around Petersburg and eventually transitioned to a middle school in the 70′s.

The last graduating class for the high school was in June 1970.

But after operating as a middle school for more than 40 years, Lewis says its operation ended abruptly in 2017.

“The school board voted to shut this building down in June 2017, and after 2018 or so, the Petersburg Public School System closed this building down completely, and when they shut it down, they shut off the power,” Lewis said.

Lewis says the building was also never correctly secured, making it an easy target for vandals. The alum says the inside of the building has been discredited and stripped of materials, including the copper wiring in its electrical systems with no alarms operational to ward off thieves.

On Christmas Eve in 2020, the building also caught fire, but he says there is still confusion about who is responsible for the damage.

“Without any power, one has to ask what went in that would cause a fire to break out. Well, something did, and there was damage and a lot of smoke damage, “ Lewis said. “The school board claims that they turned the building over to the city, but the city claims that they didn’t.”

But at the last city council meeting in Petersburg, Lewis says a request was made to apply for an economic development grant that would convert the old building to housing, but the Peabody alumni say they don’t want that to happen.

“Don’t trade our black history and black heritage for a dollar,” Lewis said. “We don’t want a multipurpose apartment here. Make it a school.”

That’s why the Peabody Academic Learning and Development Center (PALDC) is rallying to fight for this building on Saturday. They believe the building could be reimagined into a community center for the city, a museum, or even be reopened as a high school once more.

“All of that could be right here in this building,” Lewis said.

He hopes Saturday’s rally sends a clear message to local and state leaders that Peabody history needs to be elevated, not erased.

“The purpose for the rally is to generate the necessary enthusiasm to save this building from destruction, from improper use, and from vandalism,” Lewis said. “My message to everybody would be to save our black education history in Petersburg.”

That rally will be held Saturday, Oct. 29, at 725 Wesley St. in Petersburg, the location of the Peabody School, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.