West Durham Graded School No. 2 / E.K. Powe School / Elementary School

36.013256, -78.922479

Cross Street
Year built
1912, 1928
Year(s) modified
Construction type
National Register
Building Type
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It's a bit murky as to whether a school existed at Ninth and West Knox (C) Streets prior to 1912. Per Jean Anderson, the West Durham Graded School on Swift Avenue was formed from the consolidation of Northside School and Piney Grove School. Piney Grove was located on Swift Avenue, however, she notes only that Northside was located "north of the railroad tracks."

Investigation (for anything West Durham related) is hampered by the fact that city directories don't reliably report information about West Durham prior to annexation in 1925, and the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps do not cover the area prior to 1913.

What is clear is that by 1912, the West Durham Graded School on Swift Avenue had too many students to accommodate; a new West Durham Graded School, aptly termed West Durham Graded School No. 2, was commissioned for the C and Ninth St. site.

A masonry structure, very similar to the East Durham graded school that was constructed around the same time (later YE Smith school) that still stands on South Driver St., was built at C Street and Ninth Street in 1912. Although the architect of this school is not noted, the strong similarity to the East Durham Graded School makes it likely that it was also designed by Fred Githens, of Tilton and Githens Architects of New York. (Tilton was best known for designing many public libraries nationwide, including Durham's 1921 public library.

West Durham Graded School, 1910s
"Opening Celebration of New West Durham Graded School"
West Durham Graded School No. 2, 1926
Courtesy Old West Durham

It is pertinent to note, once again, that the school system in Durham was segregated by race, and that African-American students were not allowed to attend any of the schools referenced in this post. African-American students in West Durham and the West End attended the West End School, also known as the Fitzgerald School. African-American students living farther to the west attended the Hickstown School.

It appears that West Durham Graded School No. 1 only existed for a few years after the opening of WDGS No. 2. By 1921, the county school system had constructed Southside School on Erwin Road as its replacement. The West Durham Graded School No. 2 became known as Northside School.

The ongoing growth of West Durham necessitated ongoing growth of the school system. An addition was made to the rear of the Northside/WDGS 2 structure in 1924. However, this was insufficient. A large neoclassical structure, designed by Durham architects Atwood and Nash was built to the south of the 1912/24 masonry school building in 1928.

Looking northwest from B/Green St., 1930. The 1912 school building is on the right, the 1928 building on the left (Courtesy Durham County Library / North Carolina Collection).
1928 building, looking southwest. (Courtesy Durham County Library / North Carolina Collection)

After the annexation of West Durham by the city of Durham, students attended high school at the city high school. The 1912 masonry structure at C and Ninth became the West Durham Junior High School, while the 1928 structure became the West Durham Northside Elementary School.

At some point after Erwin Mills general manager and county Board of Education member EK Powe died in 1929, the school was renamed in his honor. (Per the city directories, by the mid 1930s.) In 1949, the original frame gymnasium was replaced with a brick structure. This was likely built by George W. Kane, general contractor.

Aerial of the school, looking northwest, early 1950s. (Courtesy The Herald-Sun Newspaper)
EK Powe, 1953 (Courtesy The Herald-Sun Newspaper)
1928 structure, looking southwest, 1950s. (Courtesy The Herald-Sun Newspaper)

In 1961, a classroom wing was extended to the west from the 1928 structure. Sometime in the 1960s-1970s , the 1912 school building was demolished, and, in 1975, a new classroom wing was extended north from the 1928 structure.

Today the school is a K through 5 elementary school, with a "strong Arts and Science focus." I'm not a parent, so I know little about the perceived quality of various schools, but I'm always thrilled to see the school system embrace a neighborhood school - a place that kids could conceivably walk and bike to, rather than the all-too-popular suburban behemoth sites.

1928 EK Powe school building, mostly obscured by trees, 09.12.2009.
Retaining wall around the site of the original school building, 09.12.2009.

Find this spot on a Google Map.



http://www.durhamnc.gov/departments/works/pdf/1910_West_Durham.pdf shows a 'West Durham Graded School' at the corner of Hillsboro and Ninth. The map is of West Durham, dated February 1910. Hillsboro met Ninth just north of A street, so this would have been between A and B streets. The excellent Old West Durham site has a photo of a school that may have been located here. The 1910 map also has what appears to be 'Graded School' written in at the corner of C and Ninth, the site of today's E. K. Powe.

The 1912 building was said to have been used as a hospital during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.


I cannot find any other evidence to corroborate that there was ever a West Durham Graded School at the corner of Hillsboro(ugh) and Ninth - I believe this was an error on the part of the author of that map. There is also no evidence that the structure pictured on the Old West Durham website was ever located there. The 1913 Sanborn maps show no school or house structures located on that site. The contemporaneous city directories that list schools, even in West Durham, make no mention of a school at that site ~1910. On Digital Durham's copy of the 1910 map, the "West Durham Graded School" noted at that site is crossed out. The only West Durham Graded School around in 1910, as listed in the directories, is the one I've previously profiled on Swift Ave.



I just looked at the copy of the map that you linked, and it is the same copy on Digital Durham - note that there is no building profile drawn in the area with the crossed-out "West Durham Graded School" unlike the "City Graded School" the author draws on Swift Ave. My suspicion is that, being that this was shortly before WDGS #2 was built, the author of the map got confused about the future location (or those deciding changed their minds.)


I (Anon) also have no evidence of any school at Hillsboro and Ninth, and your suspicion is convincing. Perhaps someone involved with the OWD site can enlighten us; they have a very good collection of E. K. Powe material.


I spoke with John about this a few weeks ago when I started researching this post, and my post on the corner of HIllsborough and Ninth, and he/OWD got the information from an individual source, which could very well have been informed by the map.


Boy, the school sure looked a lot better with its original windows (1928 and 1950s photos) - I hate the narrower ones that are much too short so they had to fill in the space on top with plywood... other than that the school looks pretty good though.

I have been the art teacher here at E.K. Powe for 12 years. Back in 2003 I was also the lead artist on a project with SeeSaw Studio where we created the colorful banners pictured on the recent pictures shown on this blog. We did lots of research about the neighborhood, and Durham. However, there are some pictures here I have never seen of the school before. I did not realize that there was a whole second building on the north end, where my class, the cafeteria, and Kindergarten through 3rd grade classes now stand.

Also, I must say, the school sure could use some landscaping back in the 1950's. Thanks for posting this great information.

Malcolm Goff
Art Teacher at Powe

I attended EK Powe from the second grade through the ninth grade. At that time (1949-1957), the elementary school (1 thru 6) was in the 1928 bldg and the junior high (7-9) was in the 1912 building with a wonderful collonade between them. At that time, the elementary school was very overcrowded, so a new two story addition was built onto the west side of the 1912 building to house the fifth and sixth grades. It was in construction when I was in the third grade, so our class with Mrs. Williams was held in the library on the second floor of the 1928 building. So I attended grades 2-4 in the 1928 building, grades 5-6 in the new west addition, and grades 7-9 in the old 1912 building. The 1928 and new building had an automatic bell ringing system, but the old 1912 building did not. So at lunch time, Miss Shockley, or one of us students that she designated would take the hammer and hit the bell outside her office as hard as we could so that it would be heard throughout the building.

Like David, I also attended EK Powe. I entered first grade in 1956 and 'graduated' in 1962. I was in the 1928 building for grades 1-3, the 1912 building for grade 4, and the new addition for grades 5-6. The new addition was unusual in that it was one classroom wide; the classrooms were on the south side facing the 1928 building and the hallway was on the north side. Grades 7-9 moved from Powe to the new Brogden Junior High in the fall of 1959 (if memory serves). When Lakewood Elementary's roof collapsed during a snowstorm (March 1960?), the Lakewood students moved to Powe for a year or so.

Anon - Lakewood's roof did collapse in 1960. You can read more about it in this post.


I've been teaching music at Powe for 5 years now, and it's nice to finally have the real story! It's funny, but the rumor that the school was a hospital is still going strong, and I was shown large sliding metal doors in the service area that were the "mental patient" wards. Of course, now that I know the school has been a school since 1912, those areas were probably coal storage.
We take great pride in our building, both the original and newer portions, and it's great to see how the school has developed in almost 100 years of service to kids.

Jessica and Malcolm, Powe's centennial in 2012 would be a great opportunity for a festival. The Old West Durham and Watts-Hillandale communities would support you, and you'd also get support from the Ninth Street merchants. The kids would love it, and alums (like me) would visit to see how old Alma Mater has changed. Make it a street festival - close Ninth from Knox to Main and the merchants would absolutely support you.

Thanks to you and your colleagues for your contributions to Durham's children. I remember my music and art teachers fondly; the arts contribute so much to life.

It's true that the school has been a school since 1912.

But, according to longtime West Durham neighbors, the old school building on Knox served as a temporary flu ward during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. Watts Hospital didn't want to house its flu patients near its other patients.

The basement (under the Principal's office today) once served as the school cafeteria. When the NC School of Science & Math first opened, their cafeteria wasn't ready so the NCSSM students walked down to EK Powe for lunch every day.

When Brogden Middle School opened, they took the mascot with them. So, the Green Dragons are now living at 1001 Leon Street. At a recent EK Powe reunion, the organizers handed out "EK Powe Green Dragon" t-shirts as door prizes.

Kudos to Malcolm Goff for working with Old West Durham on his beautiful banners! He asked a lot of questions and incorporated our ideas into his work.

Here are some more old photographs of the school, including the causeway (mentioned here) that connected the old junior high school with the "newer" elementary school...


The first photo (1912 building) in this set (from the Old West Durham website) has the caption "Old E.K. Powe school, Knox Street entrance (where upper playground is today)" on the OWD website.

However, I believe the photo shows an original entrance that faced Ninth. You can tell by the window patterns, and also by the different shading in the brickwork in the 1930 photo; in that photo, it looks like the Ninth Street entrance had recently been bricked over. The 1912 building had an entrance facing Knox, but I don't believe it was this elaborate.

Does anyone have a (or another) photo of the Knox Street entrance to confirm or refute this?


You are correct that the entrance in that photo would not have faced Knox (C), based on the architecture of the building. I believe that given the grade in the picture, this entrance faced Ninth St. - although given the distance of the school from the street, it could also have faced Tenth, to the west of the school.


I agree with Anonymous and Gary that the original elaborate entrance on Ninth St. must have been closed and bricked over. It is apparent by the lighter color brick and also by counting the number of windows of the top story as well as the aerial view, that it faced Ninth St. When I attended from 1949-1957, there were only 2 entrances to the 1912 building: one on the south side where the collonade attached and one in the center on the Knox St. north side. The entrances were like going into a split level house in that you had to go up or down 1/2 level to the first floor or the basement/ground floor. The stairwells were in the center on the side of the buildings as they connected to halls that went all the way through north to south on both the first and second floors. There was another smaller connecting hallway that went to the west and entered the "new" fifth-sixth grade addition. The library was on the first floor Ninth St side that appears to be bricked over. I remember waiting outside the Knox Street side entrance so many mornings for the first bell to ring.

I attended this school for 1st and 2nd grade from '81-'83. As a 5 year old, I walked the mile or so from Sprunt Avenue to E.K. Powe and back everyday with my sibling and neighbors. I was rather disappointed when we moved across town and I started going to Hope Valley because I had to ride the bus. As you pointed out, I look back with fondness at those few years when the school was near enough to walk to.

I have just found this website and the photos are great!  I went to E.K. Powe in 1959/60 and 1960/61 (5th & 6th grades).  I did not see any mention of the gym that was located at the rear of the 1928 structure.

I attended 4th grade here 1966-67. It was, I believe, the first year of a then, new north side addition to the school. Aside from classrooms, that addition contained a replacement library and cafeteria. Funny someone mentioned the gym. It was the spring of that year before I ever realized there was a gym there at all as it just wasn't used very often! On to George Watts to finish my grade school years.

I attended 5th and 6th grades at E. K. Powe. Mrs. McKay for 5th grade and a brand new teacher, Mrs. Jones for 6th. I had Mrs. McKay twice. The first year through I had pneumonia for 8 weeks of recovery and had to repeat the 5th grade. She talked my parents into keeping me in her class for the second go around. I thought she was hard but she was an excellent teacher. She taught us to memorize. It served me well the rest of my life. I remember her well and will always be thankful to her. So, this moved me from the going to be class of '72 at DHS to the class of '73. At the time I was appalled and embarrassed but in the long run it was the best decision to be made for me. I would have had a tough time in the 6th grade having missed so much of the 5th.

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