Historic Virginia High School Considered For Renovations

Visitors tour Ralph Bunche High School in King George, Va., on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (Tristan Lorei/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
Visitors tour Ralph Bunche High School in King George, Va., on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (Tristan Lorei/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
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KING GEORGE, Va. (AP) — If Ralph Bunche High School was once the hub of the Black community in King George County, then the school gymnasium might have been the heart of the facility, given the many activities held there.

And even though the old gym floor probably will have to be replaced with modern hardwood if the school does get restored, according to plan, there’s one key part of it that will be preserved.

That’s the original “B,” a circle in the gym floor, decked out in the school colors. The orange capital letter is set against a background of dark blue—and although the hues have faded, the item will find a place of honor in the renovated facility, said Claudette Jordon, president of the Ralph Bunche Alumni Association.

“The ‘B’ has been here since 1949 and it will remain,” she said as she led members of the Ralph Bunche Advisory Committee on a tour of the school. “Anything can be refurbished.”

Annie Cupka, the at-large member of the King George Board of Supervisors, said the circle probably will be cut out from the floor and framed for display, then a replica of the “B” can be installed in the refurbished gym.

Giving the “B” top billing is but one of many issues discussed by the Advisory Committee as members come up with a restoration plan and resources to pay for it. Cupka got permission from fellow members of the Board of Supervisors recently to resurrect the group, saying there’s a “new ambition” in the community to save the building.

“If the county has a plan, someone is going to see it and say, ‘Well they’re not just waiting around for someone to do it for them,’ and I feel like that’s going to start … attracting investors,” she said.

Former School Board member Renee Parker chairs the group. She served on the original committee, tasked with the same mission more than a decade ago, and believes the current effort is more attuned to making the restoration a reality.

She said there’s support from the Board of Supervisors “which is huge,” and a new committee of people with different perspectives, ideas and determination. There’s also the timing of the Black Lives Matter movement and an increased emphasis on preserving African–American sites. Ralph Bunche High School certainly fits into that category, as state and national history was made when Black parents in King George sued the county in 1947 for separate-but-equal facilities for their children.

King George recently received a $500,000 grant from the National Park Service to replace the leaking roof, and it plans to apply for a second grant of the same amount to remove asbestos and mitigate damaged caused by roof leaks.

“We’ve gotten a lot of traction with the grants that have come through,” Parker said. “When real money starts being talked about, you get interest from other parties and you get excitement so you can put out there that this is a real effort backed by our county.”

But as the nine people who walked through the building discovered, the school has deteriorated in the decades it’s been closed. The high school housed students through 1968 when county schools were integrated, then the building was used as a preschool and later, for School Board offices in the 1980s and 1990s.

The once-spacious classrooms were carved into smaller areas for workers and new walls were covered with dark paneling. The leaking roof—and water seeping in around the foundation—have caused green and black mold to grow along the baseboards and up the walls, particularly on the lower level where the kitchen and cafeteria once were housed.

In those areas, the carpet squished underfoot with every step and visitors wore masks to avoid breathing in moldy air.

“None of it is impossible to fix,” Jordon said, noting that the building remains structurally sound. “It’s got good bones. No arthritis at all.”

Cathy Binder, a member of the county’s Board of Supervisors and a student of history, said many structures from that era tended to be built better than they are today. While the renovation will have to “make up for the years of just leaving it to sit here, I see a lot of potential.”

It’s clear the gym will be restored and the cavernous library turned into a museum with photos and documents that tell the Ralph Bunche High School story. Beyond those rooms, however, Cupka said there aren’t definitive plans for other spaces, and the committee plans to address that.

Cathy Cutright, a School Board member, has talked with parents about the county’s need for career-readiness programs and wonders if the school or the industrial arts building behind it might meet some of those needs.

“It’s a possibility, that’s for sure,” she said about the building.

The group already has a study put together by Wiley-Wilson, an architectural and engineering group. King George paid the firm to assess the building in 2010 and determine the cost of repairs and professional exhibits. The 12-year-old report put the price tag at $2.3 million.

King George officials recently asked the firm to update that estimate based on the building’s condition and inflation—and the new estimate is $7.5 million.