Though being an African-American brought about harsh adversity for McDowell growing up in the South during the 1960s, he looks back fondly at his youth spent in his hometown.
“This was really a segregated town, but we all did a lot of great things together,” he said. “The laws were segregated, but a lot of the people weren’t.”
Now residing on the West Coast, McDowell is currently married to legendary Motown/R&B singer Gladys Knight (best known for her hits “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and “That’s What Friends Are For.”). And though he’s well vested in the entertainment industry, he’s never forgotten his roots in Haywood County.
“Everybody loves home, no matter where we go,” the 56-year-old said. “A lot of people left [Canton] for opportunities, but this will always be our home.”
And with that love of Western North Carolina in mind, McDowell recently purchased the abandoned Reynolds High School — a boarded up, dilapidated structure in the heart of Canton that once served as an all-black school for the town. His hope is to transform the property into a community center for any and all residents and visitors to use.
“It’ll be a good thing for the interactions in the community,” he said. “People will take more pride in where we are because you’ll be coming to our home. A lot of people don’t know that school is there, and for me, what I want to see is not just the school coming up another level, but also the entire community.”
Back to school
Built in 1930, Reynolds High School is located on the road of the same name. For years, it was a place where pupils played and learned, where families congregated and spent time together.
“It was the beginning of my life,” McDowell said. “It was the beginning of where I learned you could be and do anything you wanted to do.”
All those years ago, Reynolds was the societal centerpiece of the African-American neighborhood that surrounded the institution.
“The school itself was the embodiment of the community,” McDowell recalled. “The band marched from school all the way through the neighborhood, and we’d follow them with pots and pans.”
McDowell attended Reynolds until third grade and then was transferred to the nearby Pennsylvania Avenue School when segregation in the district ended in 1965. From there, he graduated from Pisgah High School. But the memories of Reynolds remain with him, as they have remained with the rest of his family and other neighborhood residents.
“My [older] sister was the last class to go through 11th grade, and the first to graduate from Pisgah,” he said. “But they were really hurt because they wanted to graduate from [Reynolds]. But, with the fact we’ve gotten the building back, all of those people will have pride in the fact they can now showoff what they once had.”
And with the resurrection of the school comes the dusting off of not only memories, but names and faces, many of which who went on to have successful careers around the country and beyond.
“A lot of doctors, pilots and professors graduated from that school,” McDowell said. “The strength of the people there that were able to build that school and graduate is incredible. Back then every person that taught there had their master’s degree.”
Dream come true
Even though he headed West, McDowell had always kept the dream of refurbishing Reynolds in the back of his mind. He told the previous owner of the school that if he was ever interested in selling the property to contact McDowell first. And, for many years, McDowell didn’t hear anything. But, that all changed last year.
“I found out recently that he had passed away and for whatever reason I was home that week and called,” McDowell said. “But, his wife had said they had already put the building up for auction.”
McDowell then went to the auction, made a bid and walked away the new owner of Reynolds for $80,000. His plan is to renovate the structure, which would include a food annex, food bank, education center, computer lab, school museum, picnic area and all new athletic fields, to include a walking track, football field, basketball and tennis courts. Plans also call for a smaller version of Gladys Knight’s Signature Chicken & Waffles restaurant, which is currently based in Atlanta.
“My plan is for it to look like the original building on the outside, so when people come and see it, it’ll look familiar, but of course it’ll be a lot more modern internally,” he said.
With an estimated cost of around $2.5 million to bring the school to pristine condition, McDowell sees the investment — of his own money and donations from friends — as worthwhile, and not just wishful thinking.
“Whatever it takes to get it off the ground,” he said. “Sometimes you can’t put your dreams on someone else’s head, so for me, my dream is to make it the best possible place for the town that I can make it.”
McDowell’s brother, Randy, who also attended Reynolds, still resides in Canton. Having his old school come back to life is a surreal sentiment for the 58-year-old.
“It means a lot, it’s where our roots are, where our foundation is. The people we are today started out there, and to have that building back again means the world to all of us,” Randy said. “It’s been a long time coming. It’s going to take me awhile to comprehend it when I stand there and see it finally open.”
Randy isn’t the only Canton resident excited about the school’s rebirth. Alderman Zeb Smathers said the town would assist William with whatever he may need in making his dream a physical reality. Having the school reopen as a community center will tie a harmonious bow on a troubled era for the community.
“We had our ups and downs like everywhere else [back then], and this gives us the opportunity to preserve something from the past and provide something for the future of this community that is much needed,” Smathers said. “What excites me is [William’s] vision, that it’s not just a promise. We as the Town of Canton will do absolutely everything in our power to help him.”
William is planning to have the landscape of the property cleaned up in preparation for a Fourth of July barbeque and kickoff to the renovations for the building. From there, section by section of the school will be transformed into the planned community center. But, regardless of the timeline of completion, the plans are in motion, and that’s something William is proud to be a part of.
“I wanted it back for the people that had been there for a long time, my grandfather, my mother. I think I did honor to my grandparents. They’ll always be part of that,” he said. “For me, it’s going to be that I didn’t forget about home and the spirit of who I am, no matter where I go. It’s about being able to come back and give back to all of those people and what they did for me.”