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Why the community hopes to save historic Peabody High School in Petersburg

Posted at 4:12 PM, May 11, 2023

PETERSBURG, Va. -- Peabody High School, the only public high school for African-Americans in Petersburg from 1920 to 1970, may soon be lost to history.

The 100-plus-year-old school was recently listed as one of Preservation Virginia's most endangered historic sites in the state.

“It’s a travesty," Larry Akin Smith, Peabody High School Class of 1970, said. "It’s sad to see, that there has been a lack of vision and direction by our city government for this property.”

Multiple buildings sit on the school property.

All were used for educating African Americans during segregation.

“My mother graduated from this school. So she instilled in me a lifetime dream of graduation from Peabody," Treska Wilson-Smith, who attended Peabody High, said.

Dr. Kenneth Lewis, who is part of a group called Peabody Academic Learning Development Center, said his group has tried for years to get access to the property to use for educational purposes.

Instead, the property was shuttered.

“When you talk about historic significance and tourism, and all that sort of thing, what better place to come than to the city that has the oldest public black high school in the United States," Lewis said. “I don’t think it should be made into another apartment complex."

Lewis said his group would like to re-purpose one of the buildings for supplemental education.

“For things like robotics labs, for STEM centers, for perhaps adult education center," he said.

Only the 1920 Peabody building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Preservation Virginia believes the other buildings would likely qualify as well.

“It's absolutely important to save," Akin Smith, who was a member of the last class to graduate from Peabody before desegregation closed it, said.

"This should be important to us as citizens, as a city, regardless of the race," Wilson-Smith added.

Preservation Virginia suggested a collaborative approach was needed by the city, an alumni group, and other interested parties to examine the buildings, complete any necessary immediate repairs and create a preservation plan for the school complex.

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