Columbian Heights: Community’s Spirit Lives on Through WSSU

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By Heather Fearnbach

Inside Land and Improvement Co., incorporated in June 1891 by eleven white men with physician John Francis Shaffner as president, paid $12,900 for thirty-nine and one-quarter acres of what had been the Pfohl and Stockton farm east of Salem in September of that year.

They engaged civil engineer Jacob Lott Ludlow, who had previously planned West End, Washington Park, and Sunnyside, to create a residential subdivision that encompassed twenty-six blocks bounded by the Richmond and Danville Railroad on the north and Wachovia Creek on the east.

Simon Green Atkins, who was Depot Street School’s principal at that time, felt that the land was ideally suited to become a neighborhood for black professionals in conjunction with his vision for an African American educational institution – and the developers concurred. Atkins suggested that the area be called Columbian Heights to commemorate the World’s Columbian Exposition, an exceedingly influential cultural event that brought almost twenty-six million visitors to Chicago between May and October 1893.

Inside Land and Improvement Co. financed the property sales at affordable rates, beginning with Neil Cardwell’s January 1892 purchase of a Cromartie Street lot for $150. After Slater Industrial Academy’s charter on September 28, 1892, the company donated a parcel at Atkins Street and Idabell Avenue’s northwest corner to the school’s trustees. This, the first of many neighborhood tracts that the institution eventually acquired, was the site of the one-story frame building where classes initially met. The structure later served as the People’s Choice A.M.E. Zion Church.

Columbian Heights soon became Winston-Salem’s most desirable African American community, attracting so many notable residents that it is impossible to succinctly enumerate them. By 1912, the subdivision encompassed seventy-five dwellings, eleven of which had two stories. St. Stephens Episcopal Church, organized in 1909, faced Bruce Street near the subdivision’s east end, just south of the public Columbian Heights Graded School on Wallace Street, established in 1905. A butcher shop and four grocery stores, all but one of which was located on Atkins Street, served the community.

The Atkins, Hill, and Paisley houses were among the Columbian Heights residences constructed for professional and working-class African American families. The Atkins House stood at the northwest corner of Cromartie and Atkins streets. Simon Atkins, his wife, educator Oleana Pegram, and their children resided there until the fall of 1914, when they moved into a dwelling on Slater’s campus previously occupied by white Quaker teachers and administrators John and Mary Woody. In 1924, the Atkins family inhabited the newly constructed Slater Normal School President’s House on Wallace Street.

South Carolina native James S. Hill acquired property on Idabell Avenue’s south side in August 1892 and soon built an expansive two-story Queen Anne-style residence. Hill, a Biddle University (now Johnson C. Smith University) alum, was briefly employed as a teacher before moving to Winston, where the Slater Industrial Academy board of trustees hired him to oversee the school’s fundraising efforts. He subsequently traveled extensively throughout the northern states, successfully raising funds during an eight-year campaign.

Hill served in the same capacity at Livingstone College in Salisbury after his resignation from Slater in 1900. He also became a prominent businessman, founding and serving as the first president of Forsyth Savings and Trust Co., an African American bank that opened in 1907, and investing in real estate and other endeavors.

John Walter and Mamie Paisley were also longtime Columbian Heights residents. After being recruited by Atkins to teach at Slater Industrial Academy, Paisley and his wife acquired two neighborhood lots in 1910. Paisley, a Winston native and Shaw University alum, left Slater in 1913 to serve as the Oak Street Grade School’s principal, a position he retained for twelve years before becoming the newly erected Kimberley Park School’s principal in 1925. He ended his career in 1942 following a two-year post as Columbian Heights Elementary School’s principal, where his wife was a teacher.

Slater Industrial Academy eventually grew to encompass most of Columbian Heights’ southeastern section. Highway 52’s construction in 1959 bisected the area, decimating several residential blocks and the area’s sense of community. Many residents moved to new subdivisions, leaving houses that remained vacant.

Winston-Salem State University acquired the property as part of its redevelopment plan and removed the remaining dwellings. Although the Atkins House is the sole surviving residence from the once vibrant Columbian Heights neighborhood, the community’s spirit lives on in the institution that now occupies its site.

Sources for this article include Forsyth County Deed and Plat Books; Sanborn Map Company Maps; collections in the WSSU Archives; The History of Winston-Salem State University (1999) by E. Louise Murphy, Frances Ross Coble, Simona Atkins Allen, and Wilma Levister Lassiter; and African Americans in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County (1999) by Lenwood G. Davis, William J. Rice, and James H. McLaughlin.

 

 

 

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