The school was, at one time, the largest segregated black high school on Maryland's Eastern Shore and a source of pride to this city's black community, which donated the land on which it was built.
Then in the late 1960s came integration. The Salisbury Colored High School became an elementary school, then a first grade center and, finally, a prime candidate for the wrecking ball. Plans to replace the 54-year-old building with a new school at the same site were welcomed by some on the black west side of this traditionally segregated city. But others, viewing the structure as a historic symbol of black self-sufficiency in a hostile white world, have mounted a last-ditch effort to save it.
The campaign has reached as far as Annapolis and Washington.
In recent weeks, those hoping to save the building have enlisted the support of state agencies, and letters have arrived from far-flung graduates.
Arnold D. Wallace, the general manager of Channel 32, the Howard University public television station in Washington, and a 1948 graduate, called the structure "irreplaceable."
Locally, about 300 persons have signed petitions to have the school declared a historic site and converted into a black community cultural center.
But, as demolition workers begin the task of dismantling the school, first by removing asbestos from its interior, the building has come to be viewed not only as a historic site but also as a symbol of what some Salisbury blacks regard as some of the positive aspects of having their own school and the negative side effects of integration.
"We didn't have the Hollywood Bowl: We had discarded books, discarded desks, but we made good use of the discards," said Frances Thomas of the Class of 1955, whose father graduated in 1932. "That school is symbolic of where we were and where we need to be right now."
Rather than a symbol, school administrators view it as an obsolete structure. "It was not cost effective to go in and renovate that school," said Anthony Sarbanes, director for school facilities and the brother of U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.).
A key element in the debate is Salisbury itself, a county seat of 16,000 people, 20 percent black. Virtually the entire black population of the city lives on the west side of the Wicomico River, where, residents complain, there are no health services or recreational facilities. No blacks are on the city or county council. One black sits on the five-member county school board, which oversees a system with 11,000 students, 30 percent of them black.
The city, bisected by Route 50, the road to Ocean City, offers low-paying jobs in the poultry industry, a few teaching and state jobs and little other employment for aspiring blacks, according to Charmaine Barkley, 34, who left here in 1967 for better opportunities in the District of Columbia.
"Most don't want to go back because there's nothing there for black people," said Barkley, who has just started her own word processing service.
In Frances Thomas' rec room the other night sat eight of the school's graduates who had stayed anyway.
They wistfully recalled the days before integration when the Salisbury Colored High School was an extension of its neighborhood, when blacks were not bused across town or pressured to conform culturally to the ways of the white majority, when black students were encouraged to excel by other blacks.
"They integrated not because blacks were welcomed but because the white structure wanted federal dollars" that otherwise would have been withheld, according to Grace Johnson, a Class of 1947 graduate.
"To me, they've completely stepped in and tried to completely take away the black identity, even with the school menus," she said. "Our kids don't want no carrots or celery sticks with peanut butter. Our kids are used to eating fried chicken and ham . . . . "
Ed Henry, a cost analyst for DuPont who graduated in 1960 and whose parents both taught at the school, recalled Charles Henry Chipman, black Salisbury's pedagogical patriarch, now 96, who was principal of the city's black secondary school from 1915 until his retirement in 1961.
"He pitted you in competition with the white school across town," Henry said. "In the segregated atmosphere, it was, 'We'll show them' or 'We must be better.' In my daughter, that spirit to compete is not nurtured. She doesn't have the same dreams we have."
The dream of Salisbury's blacks in 1920 was simple: They wanted a new facility to replace the dilapidated rented building that housed Salisbury Industrial High, the county's first secondary school for blacks. The Wicomico County school board said funds were unavailable to buy the land, so blacks raised $25,000 in 1923 through food sales, musical productions and other activities.
Recalled Chipman, with evident pride, "It was the largest Negro school on the Eastern Shore. Everybody was pretty happy about it."
The school opened in 1930 and new wings were added in 1937 and 1958.
When a new Salisbury High School opened for blacks in 1954, the old building became an elementary school.
The building's future came into question in 1981. About 200 residents of the west "My philosophy is the ground was set aside for a school; that's what our foreparents worked for." William Handy side attended a public hearing to demand that a school remain on the site. A task force with 11 blacks and 10 whites urged construction of a new school at the site.
"I guess if this school had been maintained, perhaps you could've renovated it," said William Handy, a black task force member who attended the school. "My philosophy is the ground was set aside for a school; that's what our foreparents worked for."
To the relief of some black residents at least, the school board agreed with the task force recommendation. There the issue stood until last spring.
Sammie L. Thomas, 23, a Howard University student and the son of Frances, then began a campaign to save the building. The effort has revived a controversy school administrators thought had died.
Last month, the school board awarded the $2.2 million demolition and construction contract.
Nonetheless, Sammie Thomas has enlisted the aid of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has tried to obtain free legal counsel for his cause. He also has won support from the Maryland Commission on Afro-American History and Culture and the Maryland Historic Trust, which last week officially designated the school a historic site, a designation providing no immediate protection for the building.
"I admire Sammie's stamina, perseverence," said the Rev. J. Chappelle Mills, an outspoken leader of Salisbury's black community who has directed his energies into expanding public housing across the city for blacks.
"I'm practical. I can't live off the past," said Mills. "To them, it's a bit of nostalgia . . . . The main thing I want is for a school to stay there. My feathers aren't too ruffled."
As for the nostalgic view of segregation expressed by some of the older generation of Salisbury graduates, Mills said, "Integration is the best thing that ever happened for our people and for the whites."