By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
For years in the East End of Newport News, Huntington High School, Pearl Bailey Library, and the Dorie Miller Community Center have been tied to the area’s history and identity.
Huntington once was the main high school serving the Black community.
But desegregation changed that. It was converted into a middle school, and it was recently closed. Now a good portion of what remains of the massive building is being razed.
The area that housed the former high school and other historic Black landmark buildings is being transformed into a 21st-century Southeast Community Resource Area (SCRA). By 2027 this huge urban space will look entirely different than it does now.
The Pearl Bailey Library, opened in 1985, is in the area. It was named for the late actress and singer who was born just blocks from the site.
The Bailey Library collection, according to city records, was located in the nearby Dorie Miller Community Center which served the East End as a venue for recreation and entertainment.
The center gets its name from a WWII Black Navy hero. On the morning of December 7, 1941, Dorie (originally Doris) Miller was serving aboard the USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked the base.
Miller manned an anti-aircraft machine gun and downed several enemy planes. The ship was sunk but Miller’s stature rose, and he was deemed a hero.
His heroics were showcased in events to sell war bonds and highlight the role of Black servicemen during the height of the war.
Two years later he died when the ship he was serving on was sunk by an enemy torpedo.
The C. Waldo Scott Center for HOPE is currently located in a portion of the old Huntington Middle School building. The organization’s mission is to provide comprehensive services to educate and foster the growth and development of youth and families.
Scott, the father of the current U.S. Congressman Robert Bobby Scott, was a noted physician and community leader in the city’s Black community.
The Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center is located at 2410 Wickham Avenue, just three blocks from the to-be-developed SCRA site. It is a multi-purpose venue, owned and operated by the city.
All of these facilities exist in a 7 by 2 block footprint nestled between Orcutt and Wickham Avenue from 28th to 35th Streets.
The SCRA will feature the new Huntington Middle School facing 35th Street. Seven blocks away facing 28th Street will be the new Community Building. It will combine the existing Pearl Bailey Library, a new Doris Miller Community Center, a swimming center, and space for a non-profit service or educational agency.
The new 21st-century development, the city says will preserve a portion of the Huntington School building and the Importance of the other facilities.
In between these two brick, mortar, and glass structures will be a multi-purpose activity/athletic field, and other green areas and space or recreation.
According to Sheila McAllister, the Newport News Director of Planning, the development is a $100 million project.
Planning for the project began back in 2017, which included feasibility studies, consideration of the historic nature of the seven-block area, and public hearings to gather the views of the adjacent residents.
One segment of the Black community which expressed reservations and some acceptance of the city’s plans is Huntington High School Alumni Association, Inc. (HHSAA).
Recently about 70 members of the group held a reunion, and the HHSAA INC. annual scholarship awards program in June, at the United House of Prayer for All People in Newport News. Five graduating seniors were selected from 10 finalists for a $1,000.00 scholarship each.
James Lovette, Jr. is the Chair of the Scholarship Committee. He said that many of the Huntington High School Alumni are saddened by the demolition of the old high school building.
But they have resigned themselves to the inevitable redevelopment project moving forward.
According to McAllister, the school was first built in 1929 and had many additions to it.
Lovett, a 1968 graduate of Huntington High School, said the last year it served as a high school was in 1973.
Since then, it met the fate of many Historic Black High schools, as it was converted to a middle school.
Eventually, due to white families’ reluctance to support it, it became a predominately Black school.
The building was large enough to serve that purpose and as a community meeting place until it was closed several years ago. Until the new facility is built, its students will be moved to another facility to make way for the pending development.
Lovett said that many community activists and alumni stood before the council and voiced opposition to the demolition of old school as part of the SCRA.
They are pleased that some semblance of the old facility is to be saved out of respect for its historic importance.
There was even a petition drive, but it did not receive enough support to deter the city council and planners from moving forward with its plans.
Many of the Huntington High School graduates who participate in the Alumni Association are in their 50s and older.
“They said some part of the old school will be saved. They mentioned a wall,” said Lovett. “We are pleased that some of the old school’s importance is recognized and not forgotten”
Councilwoman Tina Vick, who represents the area where the structure is being constructed, said she supports the project. It is taking place as Newport News has razed and redeveloped its aging public housing communities.
“We are trying to save as much of the history of the area as possible … to give the residents a new school, a community center respecting the history of Huntington High School, and the Dorie Miller Center for current and future generations,” she said.