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From Out of a Swamp: A School's Tale of Faith

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Laurinburg, N.C.

In Spike Lee's next movie, the black filmmaker's trademark big-city backdrop may give way to the loblolly pines of this small, rural town.

The plot would track closely the history of the town's namesake school, the Laurinburg Institute, which was founded nearly a century ago.

In the early 1900's, Booker T. Washington, the African-American educator and writer, dispatched two teenage newlyweds to North Carolina. They transformed a parcel of swampland into a respected private school for blacks that has graduated such notables as Dizzy Gillespie, the late jazz trumpeter and one of the inventors of bebop music; Sam Jones, a basketball Hall of Fame member; and John Swann, the Prime Minister of Bermuda.

Mr. Lee, a jazz enthusiast and avid basketball fan, might be the perfect director to tell the school's tale. His production company is interested in such a film project, but so are the actor Danny Glover and agents for the entertainers Bill Cosby and Arsenio Hall.

"We're going to have several of them fighting for it,'' said Burnest Graham, a Laurinburg economic-development official who is leading the effort to make a movie about the school.

But the Laurinburg Institute might not survive long enough to enjoy its time in the spotlight.

Although black independent schools have surged in popularity in recent years, the 90-year-old institute has not made the leap into the modern era of preparatory schools. Once the flagship black school in the country, it is now so tattered that it works hard just to stay afloat.

Carrying Out a Mission

On a recent morning, an agent from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service was booked on Frank H. (Bishop) McDuffie's calendar. The news he brought to Mr. McDuffie, the president of the Laurinburg Institute and the 41-year-old grandson of the couple who founded the school, would spoil what was otherwise a glorious spring day: The school owed $47,000 in back taxes.

Poring over the school accounts, the tax man realized the school's dire straits.

"He looked at me and said, 'You all are running a school with no money,''' Mr. McDuffie said later. "'You are losing money. How and why do you stay in business?'''

"I told him, 'Because we have a mission,''' Mr. McDuffie said. "'I could drop dead today, but the mission can't die.'''

That mission--teaching black children--was about all Mr. McDuffie's grandparents, Emmanuel and Tinny McDuffie, carried with them when Booker T. Washington first sent them to North Carolina.

With less than a dollar between them, they hopped train boxcars and dodged the Ku Klux Klan as they made their way from Alabama to Laurinburg, a town about seven miles north of the North Carolina-South Carolina border.

Once here, they raised money from local sharecroppers and bought land from one of Laurinburg's founding fathers, a former Confederate general.

Tinny McDuffie cried when she saw the property: It was marshland--good for breeding mosquitoes but little else.

But with help from other blacks in the town, the McDuffies drained the bog, cleared the trees, and opened the Laurinburg Institute in 1904 with a log-cabin classroom and seven students.

As the only school for miles that served blacks, Laurinburg grew quickly.

Dizzy Gillespie, who arrived at the school in 1933, wrote in his memoirs: "During the orientation tour of the campus, Laurinburg seemed like a complete little town. They had classrooms ... dorms for boys and girls, a large football field and outside basketball courts, a hospital, and an administration building.''

Money was always tight, and tuition was always negotiable.

"If you could pay with corn, you paid with corn,'' Bishop McDuffie said. "If you could pay with work, you cleaned the cafeteria.''

For the school's greatest triumph--a championship in the last national high-school-basketball playoffs in 1954 in Tennessee--the team traveled to Nashville in the back of a pickup truck.

Even though they were struggling financially, the McDuffies still tried to shape the characters, as well as the minds, of their students.

"It didn't pay to complain or to ask too many questions unless you were ready to do some work to change things,'' Mr. Gillespie wrote. "I learned you can get a great sense of pride from solving your own practical problems.''

"It was a school where you came a boy, but left a man,'' Sam Jones said.

Pluck and Luck

More than 400 independent schools in the United States currently have predominantly black student enrollments, according to the Washington-based Institute for Independent Education. Most of these schools opened their doors within the past two decades.

Randolph Carter, the director of diversity at the National Association of Independent Schools, said: "People found that much like Spelman, Morehouse, Xavier, and other historically black colleges, the black precollegiate schools could provide something the public schools can't--a moral environment, discipline, respect, and often a more narrow curriculum.''

Only a few of the black independent schools founded in the early 1900's remain open. Most shut their doors soon after the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education that promised blacks an equal, integrated public education.

Those that survived got by on pluck and luck.

The Piney Woods Country Life School in Piney Woods, Miss., for example, came into $1 million when the school's founder appeared in 1954 on the television program "This Is Your Life,'' and the show's host encouraged each viewer to send in a dollar for the school.

But over time, schools such as Piney Woods also adapted to the changing needs of blacks in America.

They evolved from country schools training teenagers to be field hands and factory workers to college-preparatory schools teaching students to be better students.

Like most prep schools, they built an apparatus to recruit students, raise money, and tap revenue sources.

Through smart investments, Piney Woods, for instance, has parlayed its $1 million in gifts into an endowment of more than $26 million. The school has recruited heavily in recent years, and now it has a waiting list of applicants.

It also has an aggressive fund-raising network and a public-relations operation that helped land the school on "60 Minutes'' in 1992.

The Brown decision forced changes at Laurinburg, too. After the ruling, the state of North Carolina wanted to take over the school, but Emmanuel McDuffie refused.

A few weeks later, according to Bishop McDuffie, the state condemned the school's buildings.

So, with help from the students, the McDuffie family dismantled the school's buildings, hauled each brick about a half mile away, and rebuilt the school.

The new Laurinburg Institute became a boarding school. But over the years attracting students became a problem.

Enrollment four years ago dipped to a low of 24 students. This year, there are 62 students, just under half the school's capacity.

Room and board costs $10,000 a year, but Mr. McDuffie said that because many of the students are from low-income families the school collects an average of about $3,500 per student.

As a result, the school faces debts that Mr. McDuffie estimates at $110,000. Long-neglected facilities show their age. The school's pride and joy is its basketball program, but there is not even the money to replace the gym's dented and patched hardwood floor.

Hard Work and Optimism

On this night, seniors at the school will deliver speeches before the McDuffies and the student body, speeches first delivered by such figures in history as Martin Luther King Jr. and Patrick Henry. They spend the afternoon pacing the campus, eyes on their shoes, talking to themselves, rehearsing.

"Once they've walked through the fires here, they know the good that comes from hard work,'' said Paul Baldwin, a 1969 graduate and now the school's dean of students and a science teacher.

Eighty percent of Laurinburg's 1993 graduates enrolled in college. Still, even some of the school's backers suggested it has slipped from its premier position among black independent schools.

Sam Jones heads a group of alumni that met with the McDuffies in April to discuss the school's financial woes. His action plan for the school includes paying its debts, launching a major recruiting effort for students and teachers, and appointing a board of trustees to oversee the school's management.

The McDuffies "need some direction in how it should be run and what should be done to make it one of the top schools again,'' Mr. Jones said.

The McDuffies already have taken steps to change course.

In the meeting with the I.R.S. agent, Mr. McDuffie worked out a repayment schedule for the back taxes. Also, this year he made several trips to recruit students.

Hollywood to the Rescue?

Sealing a movie deal, of course, would turn much of the school's red ink to black.

Mr. Glover, the actor, has supported the school financially, and even those in the movie industry unfamiliar with the school have stepped up to help after hearing its story.

Kukhautusha Croom, who used to work with Mr. Lee's production company, jumped at the chance to write the screenplay for a Laurinburg movie for $3,500, less than one-tenth her usual charge.

"This is what I call a 'heart' project,'' Ms. Croom said. "I think the school deserves some help.''

The only rejection of the film project came from Oprah Winfrey's company, which, Burnest Graham said, does not accept script solicitations. "When I'm interviewed on her show, I'll tell her, 'Oprah, you had first shot,''' Mr. Graham said.

Such optimism has sustained Laurinburg through 90 years of challenges that started with sweat and tears in a swamp.

"The Lord blesses the people who work with his children,'' Bishop McDuffie said. "If we're doing what God wants, he'll find ways to help us.''

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