Blood, sweat, and tears in the bones of Jones

Surry County officials heard the proposal from the African American Historical and Genealogical Society and Save Jones School Committee on Wednesday. This was the first full proposal from the Save Jones group and laid out a roadmap for them to take over the old J.J. Jones High School.

It was an all-day affair Wednesday as the Surry County Board of County Commissioners met for its 2022 Planning Retreat at White Sulphur Springs in Mount Airy, “I’m glad this day is here,” Commissioner Larry Johnson said of the heavy agenda for the board.

One of the topics of greatest interest to the board and to the community at large is the fate of the old J.J. Jones High School, now the L.H. Jones Family Resource Center. Whether the school is to be sold, gifted to a non-profit, or developed as a mixture of private-public partnership – all options remain on the table.

Jones along with Westfield Elementary were added to a list of surplus properties of the county last year, the maintenance costs of the aging buildings was simply too high for the county to carry on.

The county’s facilities manager Jessica Montgomery compiled a list of the known issues at Jones Family Resource Center, and it includes critical areas such as the boiler, hot water piping, sewer line backups, asbestos, and dangerous electrical wiring to name only a few.

The African American Historical and Genealogical Society of Surry County and the Save Jones School Committee (hereafter: Save Jones) have been making appeals to the county commissioners since the for-sale sign went up last year.

To say the Black community of this area was surprised is putting it mildly, they were aghast when the for-sale sign went up. LaShene Lowe said she was worried the result may be to disregard or destroy the history of the Black community in Mount Airy.

It really is more than a school to the alumni of J.J. Jones High, and that passion has been heard when one comment from the open forum resonates in such a way the gallery breaks into spontaneous applause like when Sonya Dodd remarked, “We all had different churches, organizations to attend, but Jones was our common ground. Our safe place.

“If you were an African American this is where you came. There’s no other site that holds this much historical and cultural value for our community. We were so proud of our school. And we are still proud of our school. This is why it is so hard to wrap our heads around the fact the county wants to sell this property which will effectively erase our memories.

“When the school closed after 1966, we cried. The county has no emotional ties to this property, so surely there are other places that can and will satisfy your business needs. There’s only one J.J. Jones High.”

“When this school began it was the parents, the teachers and the students who were the ones that made that school. They were the ones who were able to keep that school going for all those years,” Adreann Bell, Save Jones co-chair, observed of the connection still felt toward the school and their desire to preserve it.

Now, they have it all on paper and have retained legal counsel to help navigate a path to saving a piece of collective heritage. At the request of county manager Chris Knopf, the group laid out a five-year plan in which Save Jones would acquire the school from the county.

Their plan begins by asking the county to enter into an agreement with Save Jones by June 30 to “create a plan to preserve the J.J. Jones High School as a multi-purpose building for use as housing, continuing education, economic outreach, small business promotion and community advancement.”

From there, Save Jones asks that the sale of the school be put off to June 30, 2025, and all current leases with the community organizations operating out of Jones Family Resource Center remain in place through July 1, 2025.

Financial solvency is of concern, so they want to make sure their funding sources are in place. They set a benchmark date of note Jan. 1, 2025, by which Save Jones said there must be “positive contact with potential funders including Preservation North Carolina, the General Assembly and various charitable foundations.”

Save Jones wants to partner with Preservation North Carolina, and Ted Alexander spoke to the board on its behalf. Preservation North Carolina currently supervises the upkeep of more than 900 historical sites in North Carolina, including an old Rosenwald school in Walnut Cove.

He is, “offering their services as a tool for the preservation of the building. We don’t want to own the building for long.

“We want to be the conduit, or the pass-through organization, that would protect and manage the building through the process that gets it into the hands of the final ownership group. The plan is to not let the building fall into further disrepair.”

Following will be hiring of an architect and then a contractor to “carry out the vision” of a multi-use building that does include space for housing. Save Jones made it clear that they see a place for housing in the project “We aren’t opposed to some housing and understand this is where the tax credits are,” Bell said.

“Some people who attended Jones don’t want to see this school turned into a housing project. Have you all asked the people in that community who are all middle class and who own their own homes whether they want low-income housing in the community?

“There’s already a slum building at the end of the street that is raided constantly. Do you really want low-income housing in this area? It’s not to say that some housing may not be a good thing, but not the whole thing.”

As was noted, the school was added to the registry of historic places in 2019. “In the application you all saw this as part of your history too,” Cordie Armstrong pointed out. She went out to refer to specific entries in the historic registry application of three years ago that seem to contradict the current “surplus” status of the school.

The application reported the building “retains strong integrity of location, setting, design, materials, workmanship, feeling and association for listing in the National Register. Overall, the feeling and association related to the significance of the former J.J. Jones School in the history of Black education in Surry County remains extremely high, and an active alumni association works diligently to see that it remains so.”

It is the strength of bond between the students themselves and what Dodd said are their “memories of what we endured, achieved, and what we hold dear,” that keep this community a close one even many years since the last class got their diplomas.

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