Gladys Knight, Billy McDowell kick off projectRenolyds School revitalization has begun
CANTON — The project to revive the segregation era Reynolds High School in Canton as a community center is gaining momentum after a visit from Canton native Billy McDowell and his wife, legendary songstress Gladys Knight.
The couple purchased the deteriorating school back in 2013 and have been quietly improving the grounds since the project was made public in February this year.
As he promised would happen this summer, McDowell and Knight opened up the school to the public Monday to break ground on the project.
The two seemed completely at home walking around the grounds of the old school, sharing laughs with loved ones in the community. McDowell greeted everyone with a hug, sometimes a kiss, saying, "hey cuz!," to many of his relatives who came to support the project.
The school, which was built in 1930, was segregated until 1967 when the students were integrated at Pisgah High School.
Though McDowell only attended the school until second grade, it's engraved in his memory. He remembers everything from the football games to watching the marching band practice on his street. His mother was a janitor and cook at the school and his uncle played football.
Most everyone there to see the ground breaking at the new community center had fond memories to recount of their old school. Crawford Conley, who graduated from the school in 1965, was proud to see it finally being restored to make a difference in children's lives once again.
"There's a lot of sentiment here," he said.
He remembers all of the students having to use second-hand books.
"We made do with limited resources but we did very well with what we had," he said.
But it's the teachers that stand out most in his mind.
"They were dedicated people who taught you how to read your water meter or how to write a check on top of the school work they had to teach you. They really cared about where you were going in life," he said.
Wanda Walker, who grew up in a family of 14, was also thrilled to see the school being revived. Of all her siblings, 11 attended Reynolds School.
"It holds dear, precious memories in our hearts, and we are so excited about the restoration development program that has been implemented in our neighborhood," she said.
It's also a project that's very near to Knight's heart.
"I'm so excited I'm bubbling over," Knight said with a grin that showed her enthusiasm.
"This particular project gives me even more of a high than a standing ovation," she said. "I can see it all done — I can just see the kids in there learning."
She hopes to instill a sense of pride in the youngsters — how to be clean, how to dress properly and how to address people respectfully.
"It's all going to happen in His time," Knight said. "This is a nonprofit, so we're not here to make money. We're just here to make a difference in their conscious and their reality."
The old school still needs plenty of TLC before it can reach their overall vision, but it's nothing the couple isn't ready to tackle.
In just four months, McDowell has contracted help to clear about 400 trees from the property, revealing the area that was once used as the practice football field. He's sowed grass and hopes to one day revive that field and install a walking track.
The inside of the building has been cleared from several dump trucks full of debris and the once graffiti covered brick walls are once again a sleek, bright red.
Much of the work has been facilitated from the couple's full-time home in Las Vegas, McDowell said.
They hope the community center will be a gathering place offering several different services to the community from computer classes to a food pantry.
McDowell thanked everyone for their support of the project before a wall at the entrance of the old school was knocked down.
"Blue and gold, through and through," he said, remembering the school's colors.
Canton Mayor Mike Ray hugged McDowell and thanked him for the invitation to share in the day's festivities.
He said he was proud to see the community coming together to restore the old school for a good cause.
"This is our main purpose of being here today, to consecrate this and to open this up and make this a community jewel for Canton and the surrounding area, and I want to thank all of you for that," Ray said.
Alderman Carole Edwards said she was "wowed" when she saw the progress that has already been made at the school.
"It's going to be a great place for this community and for all of Canton," she said.
Those who wish to contribute financially to the project may call McDowell's office at 702-796-5055 or mail a check to 3221 Lamirida Avenue, Las Vegas, NV, 89120.
Those who would rather volunteer time and talents may help the community work on the grounds after 10 a.m. during the week, meeting at Reynolds School at the end of Reynolds School Road in Canton.