'We didn’t have all the things we have now back then, but we did have unity, you know. It’s family.'
Change has shaped and reshaped the Alexander Wilson School, on N.C. 54 in Graham, many times over the past 95 years.
The school’s opening year is unclear, with the Alamance-Burlington School System’s records showing an opening in 1922, while the school’s own historical record indicates an opening in early 1923.
“Many of our programs and resources have developed, but the tradition for excellence in learning began in 1923,” Principal Dean Richardson says on the school’s website.
The school was named after a prominent Irishman who settled in Alamance County and opened a school in his home just a few hundred yards away from the current school’s site. Dr. Alexander Wilson and his sons taught there from 1851 until his death in 1867.
The school has served Alamance County students of all ages, and at one point it served all of them under the same roof. Alexander Wilson was one of the first consolidated high schools in Alamance County and later would become one of the first consolidated elementary schools as well.
IN 1918, THE CONSOLIDATION of schools began, first bringing students from rural areas together at the old Hawfields School building. Once the student body outgrew that building, approximately 100 students from Hawfields, Swepsonville, Woodlawn, Eureka and Bethany moved to the newly opened Alexander Wilson High School. At the time, the school served students in grades eight through 11.
At the end of the school’s first academic year, the Alexander Wilson class of 1923 consisted of only seven students, followed by just 34 graduates the next year. The class of 1924 was considered to be quite a large graduating class at the time and was attributed to the wide geographical area that the consolidation included.
Thirteen years after Alexander Wilson opened its doors, a second wave of consolidation began in Alamance County during which elementary and middle school students were combined into the pre-existing buildings. In 1936, Alexander Wilson High School became more simply known as the Alexander Wilson School, and the student body grew tremendously over the next four years as consolidation continued.
During the consolidation, students from Shady Grove, Climax, Little Oaks, Melville and Meadow Creek, in addition to the communities included in the high school consolidation, were sent to Alexander Wilson, while Woodlawn students left the school to join the Mebane school system. To accommodate the increase in students, the first of many building projects on the site had begun in 1935, when 10 new classrooms were added to the original school building and the auditorium was remodeled.
It was at this time, in 1936, that second-grade student Henderson Scott was sent from his community school in Hawfields to Alexander Wilson. He and his 27 classmates, whom he refers to endearingly as “the country kids,” would receive their entire education in the same building, moving from one side of the school to the other as they grew up.
Scott never noticed crowding in the school because he felt connected to the students around him and knew each personally.
“We didn’t have all the things we have now back then, but we did have unity, you know. It’s family,” he said. He and his classmates remain close still and just celebrated their 70th class reunion.
In 1946, Scott’s class became the first group of students required to complete the 12th grade, which kept more students in the building for a longer period of time. He also saw the beginnings of the school’s athletic programs.
“I played basketball and football. It wasn’t that I was very good, but I was a warm body and we didn’t have many,” Scott said.
That same year, the home economics building was built and the agricultural building was added to the school grounds. This freed space in the basement for a cafeteria that allowed students access to a hot lunch for the first time in the school’s history.
“Before the cafeteria was built, you know, we had bagged lunches. I ate a lot of peanut butter crackers in my life, but all that changed,” joked Scott, who graduated a year after this phase of construction was completed.
“We lost a lot of people going to the service after the second world war ended, but the 28 of us who graduated, we were very close. We had wonderful teachers. It was a great life,” he said of his experience at Alexander Wilson.
CONSTRUCTION BEGAN AGAIN again in 1958 when an additional 16 classrooms, a library and science labs were built to create a separate high school wing. The next year, eight more classrooms were built and dedicated to elementary students in addition to the construction of the C.P. Thompson gymnasium.
By 1960, the school had 1,180 students and 42 teachers. The building had more than tripled in size and the student body had grown 11-fold since the school began. Relief would not come for the crowded school until the high school students joined Sylvan, Eli Whitney, and E.M. Holt students to form Southern Alamance High School in the 1960s. In 1974, the student body shrank even more when the Southern Alamance Middle School opened and Alexander Wilson Elementary School was born.
The agricultural building and the old high school and middle school wings have since been torn down and a new cafeteria space was built. The elementary classrooms, the original office building and home economics building, and the gym facilities still stand. Additionally, a gazebo was built on the school grounds in 1985, which houses the original school bell.
Alexander Wilson Elementary School now holds roughly 600 students and 39 teachers and enrolls students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
While the building looks and functions very differently than it did upon its opening, the history is still a prominent part of the school. Display cases and historical photographs can be seen throughout the school’s entryway and main office, and the staff keeps a treasure trove of historical articles, documents, snapshots and other memorabilia safely in storage.