Preservation Magazine, Summer 2022

Endangered Dorms at a Prestigious Former School for Black Students

Over a period of 69 years, the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, educated more than 1,000 Black students. From humble beginnings—educator Charlotte Hawkins Brown opened the school in a former blacksmith shop in 1902—Palmer grew into a prestigious social finishing school with a 300-acre campus and 15-plus buildings. By the 1940s, it had become the country’s premier Black boarding school, attracting students from the Bahamas, Kenya, and Liberia.

However, in 1971 the effects of desegregation, combined with financial problems and a fire that burned the administrative and classroom buildings, caused the school to close. In May of 2022, the National Trust named the institute to its annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. (View the entire list at SavingPlaces.org/11Most.)


The exterior of the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedial, N.C.

photo by: Liz Torres Melendez

The school is an active state historic site with a museum dedicated to Brown. But its three former student dormitories are unsafe to enter after sitting vacant for more than 50 years. “The dormitories were where students got to know their classmates,” says Liz Torres Melendez, the museum’s assistant site manager. Students bonded there during late-night chats and did the housekeeping chores that Brown believed were critical to their education.

In Charles W. Eliot Hall and Reynolds Hall—the former boys’ dormitories—the ceilings and walls are crumbling, and weeds are growing in the basement. Galen Stone Hall, the girls’ dormitory, suffers from extensive water and smoke damage. “There’s basically a large hole where you can see from the basement to the attic,” Melendez says. She’d like to see the buildings reborn as community spaces. “We want to make sure we’re listening to the residents of Sedalia to hear what their needs are and how we can serve them,” she says.

Lauren Vespoli is a freelance culture writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

Learn More