Built through a grassroots community effort, the Bruce Street School was the first African American public school in DeKalb County and likely one of the first in the state. While the stone school (also known as “the old school building”) was built in the late 1930s, the Bruce Street School’s history of community-led education goes back to the 1880s. The old school building ruins that remain today stand as a legacy of African American education in DeKalb County and the power of community.
History and Significance
Located in Lithonia, the ruins of the Bruce Street School sit next to the East DeKalb at Bruce Street Senior Center. The structure, constructed by quarry workers with local stone, dates back to 1938 when the trustees of what was then the Yellow River School for Black students bought land on Bruce Street and began raising money to build a new schoolhouse.
Named the Lithonia Negro School, the school began to receive support from the DeKalb County government. The first graduating high school class (around 1943) included three pupils. As the school grew there were eventually over a dozen elementary and eight high school classrooms in the schoolhouse and in several wooden buildings surrounding it. The school closed in 1955 when the Georgia legislature, in an attempt to avoid desegregation mandated by Brown vs. Board of Education, built "equalization schools" throughout Georgia. The pupils moved across the street to the "new" Bruce Street School that still stands today, housing a police precinct. After it was closed, the stone school suffered a fire and crumbled from neglect.
Former school principal C. E. Flagg is honored at the historic gateway to the National Heritage Area, located at the Lithonia Woman’s Club. Many alumni are alive today, and still remember principal Flagg as well as their old school song!
Revitalization and Future
The Arabia Alliance with Dekalb County and the City of Lithonia are currently working to revitalize these ruins into a covered, multi-use space. Community members shared photos and stories from the history of the Bruce Street School to help understand this site’s legacy and inform the future vision for the ruins. These vital meetings informed our design partners and resulted in the current conceptual design that was introduced to stakeholders and the public at the end of 2022.
When finished, the Bruce Street School will be reimagined as a multi-use, open-air structure with a picnic area, covered amphitheater, community garden, and food forest. The project comes with a $1.8 million price tag. The Arabia Alliance is currently fundraising with its Capital Campaign, which kicked off on March 30th with a parade, speakers, music and more in front of the historic stone ruins. Please donate and help the Alliance and the Bruce Street Community preserve and revitalize this historic site for future generations.
Today the ruins stand erect behind a chain linked fence to keep them and the public safe. You can still view the entries to the east and north as you walk around the building. You can see the two chimneys inside the structure that connected to the classroom burners that keep students warm on cold winter day. For special events the gates are open and visitors can climb a wooden viewing platform to see inside the standing walls.
In 2022 the Arabia Mountain Heritage Area Alliance and community partners and stakeholders unveiled a new interpretive sign that shares the history and vitality of the school and the Bruce Street community. Keep checking back to see our progress!
Share Your Story
Did you or someone you know attend the Bruce Street School? Do you have mementos like photographs, yearbooks, and other items from the school? If you answered yes, then we’d love to hear from you! First-hand accounts, oral histories, photographs, and other memorabilia help us understand the past and allow a complete story to be told. There are lots of ways to share your memories and artifacts with us. One way is to complete our History Harvest form. You can also email us or connect on Facebook.
About the Arabia Mountain Heritage Area Alliance
Lithonia sits in the heart of the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area, a historically and naturally significant landscape that encompasses over 40,000 acres where people live, work, and play. The Arabia Mountain Heritage Area Alliance (the Arabia Alliance) will lead community engagement efforts for the historic Bruce Street School ruins project. The Alliance is the non-profit partner that advocates for, preserves, and tells the story of the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area. The Alliance has led many preservation, community development, and interpretive projects across DeKalb, Henry, and Rockdale Counties.