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Historically black high school celebrates a storied past

Members of the newly re-formed Central High School band perform in the Hillsborough Holiday parade in December.

Photo courtesy of Central High School Band

Staff Writer

HILLSBOROUGH — “The school was everything for the black community,” said Thomas Watson, an Orange County native and 1965 graduate of the historically black Central High School in Hillsborough.

The hub of the school was the gym, of which Watson says, “We used it for everything. We’d go to dances there.”

In fact, rumor has it that Ike and Tina Turner once played in that gym, and that a street party was held in association with the event.

Watson confirms that rumor: “Ike and Tina Turner indeed played there. Many other Motown artists as well.”

Central High School closed its doors in 1968, but the spirit of the school will be revisited on Saturday, Feb. 28 from 7 to 9 p.m., when the Orange County Historical Museum will host a special event in honor of the school at Mt. Bright Baptist Church. A panel of speakers – including teachers, principals, coaches and students – will talk about their experiences at Central.

‘Anchor of the community’

The school opened in 1938 and included first through 11th grades. Twelfth grade wasn’t added until 1945.

Central was a small, 12-room school. In 1958, the original school burned down, said Darcie Beecroft, director of the Orange County Historical Museum, and another school was built in the ’60s. That building is now Hillsborough Elementary.

“The school was important to the African-American community. It was the only school that they could get an education,” Beecroft said. “A lot of students had to walk for miles to get to school. They were bused from across the county.”

“The school itself was kind of the anchor of the community. A lot of cultural events happened there,” said Elizabeth Read, the executive director of the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough.

Orange High School opened in 1963 as an all-white school. In 1968, when schools were desegregated, most of the students from Central High School transferred to Orange High, but not all of the teachers were able to, Read said.

“When it closed in 1968, I think people still had a lot of allegiance to the teachers there because of the bonds they formed,” she said.

In May 2008, former students organized an all-class reunion for the 40th anniversary of the school’s closing, inviting everyone associated with the school to return.

“We decided to re-enact everything we did in high school,” said Watson. “That entailed putting together a basketball team, a band, a prom, a maypole, a softball game – all of that stuff came back together.”

Connecting back

Out of that experience, a community band was born. Read said that the original idea was to form a band comprised of everyone who went to Central High School just to perform at the anniversary reunion. But after the reunion, band members wanted to keep it going, and decided to include other members of the community.

“We solicited students that had gone to the school and their children and their grandchildren,” said Watson. “We had a seamstress who made the uniforms for us.”

Twenty-four musicians and eight color-guard members regularly attend practices on Sundays. The band marched in the Hillsborough Handmade parade in October and the Hillsborough Holiday parade in December.

“It’s been a good opportunity for people to be able to connect back to that high school,” said Read.
An exhibit called “Minority Milestones: Celebrating Central High School” will be on display at the Orange County Historical Museum from Feb. 17 until March, in conjunction with Black History Month. It was put together by the alumni association of the high school and consists of panels about the history of the school as well as school memorabilia.

For more information, visit the museum website orangehistory.com or call 732-2201.

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