MOUNT OLIVE — Eula Kerr McCoy smiles as she talks about how proud she was to be part of the first class to march into the newly rebuilt Carver High School in 1941.

The original two-story school had been destroyed by fire in December 1939, but students continued to attend classes in area churches.

McCoy, who will celebrate her 96th birthday on May 8, was among the nearly 100 people who gathered Saturday afternoon in the Carver Cultural Center gym on the old school’s campus to celebrate school’s history and legacy.

The event was sponsored by the Mount Olive Chapter of the Carver High School Alumni and Friends Association as a way to announce a soon-to-be-published book on the school’s history from its founding in 1880 to its final graduating class in 1970 when it was consolidated with Southern Wayne High School, Dudley.

Carrie Kornegay, Southern Wayne High School Class of 1971, spoke on the history of the school from 1880 to December 1939, and Lula Powell, Southern Wayne High School Class of 1971, spoke of the new beginning of the rebuilt school in 1941 to 1970.

Both are members of the chapter’s historical committee that created the book.

Historical displays were set up in one corner of the gym.

Carver School, 612 S. Breazeale Ave., traces its history back to 1880 and served the area’s African-American students. It was named for George Washington Carver.

In 1947, it was the first Wayne County school to earn accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It served as an integrated elementary school from 1970 to 1997. In 2009, the facility was renamed to Carver Cultural Center and now houses the offices of several nonprofit organizations and a number of town athletic activities.

McCoy was among several former students and teachers who were recognized for being a part of that legacy.

“I do have a lot of memories,” said McCoy, who lives in Fayetteville. “I learned a lot here today. I remember when then school burned. I heard of it the next morning. I remember doing some work for one of my home economic teachers. I was doing charts and had worked ... painting and drawing food and different things to put on the wall. When I heard of the school being burned, I said, ‘All my gracious, all of that work I did.’ But there were so many other things that were more important than what I was doing.

“It was a sad thing to hear of our school getting burned. It was exciting to be the first class to march into the new building. Our choir members had dresses made of homespun, the material was very inexpensive. Our home economics teacher had us make the dresses out of inexpensive material thinking of all of the loss that we had had. We were doing our practicing and rehearsal in Payne’s Temple Church, so that is something to think about. We made our dresses out of homespun, and I was so excited to be able to march into the new building.”

McCoy is from the Wesley area just west of Mount Olive.

She recalls seeing other students riding a bus to school, while children who had attended the Wesley school with her did not have a bus.

“We were wondering why we weren’t riding a bus,” she said. “Men in the neighborhood got together and raised as much as $25 each. That wasn’t much, but then things weren’t as expensive then as they are now. The superintendent put all of the money together with other money so that we could have a bus to ride to Carver High School each day and not have to spend a week in other people’s homes.”

After graduating from Carver, McCoy attended Fayetteville State University. She has five children all of whom attended college.

“I am just thankful to be here,” she said. “The Lord has been good to me, and I am looking forward to my birthday.”

Carver’s legacy and affect have followed her entire life and that of her children as well, she said.

“I remember the love we had here at Carver,” she said. “It was deep within us. We loved Carver, and we were so hurt when the building burned, and then we had to go to school in churches. We had our home economics classes in Mr. Lane’s store. It didn’t stop us. It didn’t stop us. We went on to do higher things — some are doctors, some are lawyers.

“It didn’t stop us. We were determined to make something of us.”

James D. Henry, Class of 1957, association secretary, said that a tragedy for African-Americans is the loss of, or lack of a record of their history.

Henry said he remembers as a young boy the number of newspapers and magazines from black publishers. Sadly, there are not as many today, he said.

“Perhaps equally significant, hardly any records can be found of the others (publications),” Henry said. “What we have witnessed here today makes sure that Carver High School, Mount Olive, N.C., will not fail victim to that fate. Nor should it. Carver was as important to Mount Olive as any institution established here.

“From the dawn of the 20th century, Carver High School was an ideal, a goal ... in the hearts and minds of a small group of unwavering and courageous black citizens. The buildings that would manifest that goal became a center of activity for so many of us.”

It was at the school where some saw their first drama, heard their first concert or attended their first sporting event, he said.

There was an expectation at the school for students to do well, Henry said. A Carver graduate was expected to do better, he said.

“We knew these things because our principals and teachers led the way,” Henry said. “So we are gathered here today to say thank you to the Mount Olive Chapter of the Carver High School Alumni Association and all of those who gave support and assistance to the hard-working historical committee members to reveal what for so long was hidden.

“But may I say this, don’t stop here. Let us today begin an annual Carver Historical Day. Let’s learn more. Let us pledge among ourselves to keep Carver High School alive and create an atmosphere that those who follow us will take the course.”

The Rev. Granger Martin Sr., Class of 1967, association president, said he wants five of the new history books for his children, not because he is mentioned in it, but because they need to know what the foundation is all about, he said.