Purnell Swett High School

School and Community

Purnell Swett High School opened in the fall of 1983 as West Robeson High School. Those who learn and teach inside its spacious modern buildings are still developing an identity, a sense of cohesion and oneness, a feeling of being one. The history of the school is brief; it is not one community but the educational apex of three. Purnell Swett has taken the best from the former high schools of Maxton, Pembroke, and Prospect and return to each place a measure of price in what can be accomplished together. In this larger sense, Purnell Swett has a long and varied history with roots in three communities.

Fifteen hundred and fifty students from these communities come from this southwestern part of Robeson County, an area that is primarily rural and farm oriented. Traditionally, tobacco was the largest source of income, an the total economy was dependent on row crops. However, in the past 30 years Robeson County has diversified its economy with the acquisition of considerable industry, mostly textile plants. Many of the parents work in these plants, some earning slightly above the minimum wage. Thirty-three percent of the parents are unskilled laborers, and they continue to work as day laborers on the frames of the communities. Semi-skilled workers number 20.7%, and those who do not hold managerial or proprietary positions include 5.2%. Less than 50% of the parents of Purnell Swett High students obtained a high school diploma, but 30% hold college or university degrees.

An immense number of students are from broken homes with 27.7% living with single parents or guardians. Most of these students are not afforded opportunities which would promote strong social and emotional development and certainly, enriching academic opportunities for them will be limited.

The population ethnic groups comprising the student body at Purnell Swett High School consist of the following:

    82% American Indian
    14% African American
    4% White
    .1% Hispanic
    .1% Asian

Because this geographical area is largely populated by American Indian, there have been no significant changes in the ethnic composition of the student body since the school began.

One of the things which each community has in common with the others is a long dedication to learning. The town of Maxton, formerly Shoeheel, has in its past been the home of two colleges and a preparatory school. Between 1912 and 1926, the Methodist conference sponsored Carolina College for women which operated there. When that school closed, the Presbyterian Church bought the campus and, in 1929, converted it into a junior college for men. Presbyterian Junior College closed when it merged with Flora McDonald of Red Springs to become St. Andrews College at Laurinburg in 1961. From 1962 to 1972, the buildings of Presbyterian Junior College were utilized by Carolina Military Academy, a preparatory school for boys. The first graded school in Maxton opened in 1902 and grew into Maxton High School, attended by white students, as R.B. Dean High School became the only high school in town for black students.

Noted for its historic architecture, Maxton was first settled by Highland Scots whose "Mac" titles gave the town its name. In the spring of 1984, a tornado struck the area, damaging or destroying much that was both old and new. This catastrophe strengthened bonds at Purnell Swett High School as each community rushed to aid the hurt and the homeless.

Having a school of higher education, Pembroke has been more fortunate than Maxton. Today's Pembroke State University was established as a normal school in 1887. Pembroke Senior High School, one of the three that became Purnell Swett High School, also evolved directly from the normal school. The coming of the college was especially important to the Indian people of Robeson County. Prior to its establishment there was no provision for the education of this large segment of the population. It was from this institution in Pembroke that Indian education flowed throughout the county and the region.

Prospect, a small and consistently unique community just north of Pembroke, can boast no schools of higher education in its past, but its inhabitants have made a point to produce scholars. Prospect High School's first class to graduate was in 1932. Its former high school, now a part of Purnell Swett High School, has the wide and well-deserved reputation of turning out generally better educated students than some of the other schools.

Both Pembroke and Prospect are predominantly Indian communities and are blessed with a colorful history, some of which provoke fascinating speculations. In the early 1700's Frenc Huguenots from South Carolina found English-speaking Indians living along what is today known as the Lumber River. They were engaged in other practices more common in England than among the American Indians. There is more than enough information about these Lumber ancestors to pose some very interesting questions. Unfortunately, there has not been thus far discovered enough to provide definite supportable answers. Perhaps the most intriguing speculation regards the possible connection to Raleigh's "Lost Colony," a theory first popularized by Hamilton McMillan shortly before the turn of the century. Whenever the contact with old England was made, it is still evident in the speech of some Indians. Echoes of Elizabethan English can be heard in almost any gathering composed of a number of Indians. Television and travel have brought knowledge and pleasure to the area, but there is a price to be paid for these advantages -- the local accent is disappearing. Probably within another generation the last vestige of English, as Shakespeare spoke it, will have vanished.

Equally enthralling to citizens and outsiders alike is the story of Henry Berry Lowry, Civil War era leader as a band of outlaw heros. The stresses of civil war were compounded in Robeson County by long years of discrimination against the Indian by the White power structure of the time. Some Indians served in the Confederate Army, though forbidden by law to do so.

Others were conscripted, over their objections, to build at Fort Fisher in Wilmington. Pro-unionist sentiment among the Confederacy became more desperate, expropriations of food for the armies left scarcity, even in the farm areas. The bloodshed continued until Henry Berry Lowry disappeared into legend in February of 1872. His exploits are remembered each summer in the outdoor drama, "Strike the Wind" and remembered through the year by the Indian people.

Purnell Swett High School will continue to play a major role in the education and total life of the rapidly changing community. The principals, both past and present, have accepted the varying challenges presented in both the organization and ongoing development of the largest high school in Robeson County. The faculty and staff members have worked in a concerted effort to bring about the best in preparation for the total growth of the students.

The histories of the communities of Maxton, Pembroke, and Prospect which make up Purnell Swett High School encompass far too much to outline here. Together, history will continue to be as the three communities fuse into one.

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