- Yeah, it was 1923 when Charlotte's first all-black high school opened here in what used to be Charlotte's biggest all-black neighborhood, known as Brooklyn.
Before Second Ward High School, if you were an African American student you couldn't get a public school diploma here in Charlotte, but eventually the school board even built a brand new gymnasium that still stands today.
But 20 years after the Second Ward Gym opened, well they tore down everything else.
(emotional music) Like the old gym itself, all that's left of Second Ward High School today is what decades of Second Ward graduates remember, from this Tiger trophy case in the lobby, to these old high school photos on the wall.
Some graduates even leaving their mark on the gym's original wooden bleachers, etched reminders of high school romances and homecoming dances.
- I remember the band practiced on the stage, and the basketball games.
A lot of memories in that gym.
- [Jeff] Lindsay Williams, Jr. Class of 1953 played trumpet in the old Second Ward Band, and today, at age 88.
(smooth trumpet music) Well, once a horn player, always a horn player.
A little rusty maybe, but Williams still blowing the bluesy notes that bring back those Second Ward memories.
- [Lindsay] I lived in a three room house, shotgun house, you know, a family of four but, you know, but we made it.
I'm still here.
When they was building that gym, I used to go down and play in the bottom of that gym 'cause I lived two blocks from school.
I used to play while they was building.
We'd go by seven, eight blocks to go to football game and we enjoyed that, you know, 'cause you went to school there.
Everything happened in your life here, you know.
(video player rattling) - [Jeff] In fact we actually found video of Williams' Second Ward High School memories in this old film from the estate of Pearl Phillips Diggs, featured in a documentary about the school produced in 2002 by North Carolina's Center for Educational Films.
These are scenes of the classes that Williams enjoy the most.
Not just reading, writing, and 'rithmetic either.
- The thing I like about it, they don't have now, they had these brickmasons, stuff like that, shoe repairing, drafting, auto mechanics.
(video tape humming) - [Jeff] The film also shows female students learning to cook, and to make beds, and to serve tables.
Charlotte's first black high school preparing many graduates not for college or careers, but instead for the only jobs they could get back then.
- The school system was segregated and what happened, the white schools were better.
The black kids that made it, they were just smart.
They had less, they were just smart.
It was a good high school if you took interest, if you guys, had to be in you to get something out of you.
It was there, you know?
It was there.
- But Williams also remembers all those old promises to rebuild Second Ward High School, promises that today are sort of like these old gym lockers, still empty decades after the school closed.
What Williams calls decade after decade of Second Ward disappointments.
- Yeah it was, but when they tore it down it was gone.
It was around '69 or somewhere they tore it down.
Yeah, it bring back memories, and they said well we gonna build you another high school.
But that never materialized.
- And then the belief it would come back.
What are we gonna do about it?
When are we gonna, you know, bring it back?
It had such rich histories.
- [Jeff] School board member Lenora Shipp says that same Second Ward High history here in the old gym is also part of her own family history.
- My mother went to Second Ward.
- [Jeff] And now Shipp adds it's time to keep that old promise of a new Second Ward High School.
- This was Brooklyn and, you know, that's gone too.
But to bring it back to say, "Look, we care, and here is history and we need to make this right."
We have to, as a board, we need to say it, "Promises made, promises kept."
- [Jeff] What CMS is proposing to build is a $186 million Magnet high school with underground parking, here on the same site as the old Second Ward campus.
What Shipp calls a modern MedTech high school that would prepare today's students for tomorrow's careers in healthcare and technology.
- This location is ideal.
We are so close to Central Piedmont, Atrium, the Wake Forest medical program coming.
We have so many opportunities and now's the time to grab hold of those 'cause they're children and students that have these dreams but they don't know how to get there, and we gotta help them on that path to get there.
And I think this is an opportunity, phenomenal opportunity to give them a path.
- Today, I guess expectations are higher.
People want more out of their schools, their high schools than than what they used to want.
- Right, we just felt like this is a good time.
It's the 100th anniversary of Second Ward, but also having an opportunity to be in the, this part of the city.
This is the footprint and just to think we can come back here.
- You know, well we were used to disappointment.
You know, when you're used to it, you get the heck over it.
- [Jeff] And while Lindsay Williams has his doubts about this latest promise, he also has hope that 70 years after graduating from Second Ward High it's about time to bring it back.
- Well things change.
That's the way it is, you know?
We change, things change, you know?
- Still lots of questions about that New Second Ward High School project.
Like this 100-year-old campus, is it really big enough for a modern new high school?
Also there's talk about moving school board offices and the meeting chamber to this site.
How, exactly, is that gonna work?
And will voters approve the bonds needed for funding of this new project?
The answers to those questions will eventually determine whether the school board should and would make good on that old Second Ward promise.