Our African American Students Have an Incredible Education Heritage
Their families built schools that changed history in North Carolina and all across the South
A shorter version of this article appeared in the February, 2017 issue of Cape Fear Living magazine
Sometimes people ask, what motivated me to start documenting African American school history? I was working full-time and had two young children in 2003, so I didn’t really need another project when I began researching the schools. I had no filmmaking background, and no family ties to the South. So, during the first two years, I tried to give my notes and tapes away to someone — anyone! — who was more qualified than I was to document this history. I spoke with historians, community members, and filmmakers. Basically, all of them said the same thing: “That’s such an important project; you should definitely keep doing it!”
Certainly, it was an indication that they were more practical than I was. This venture has no resources attached. Eight years into making my documentary Under the Kudzu , I was finally fortunate enough to get some grant funding. Two small grants, from the True North Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, enabled me to finish that film in 2012. For that, I am deeply grateful to those organizations. However, most of all I need to recognize Lyndon Kyle Holt, a UNC Wilmington student who spent many hours filming and editing that first film.
Under The Kudzu
Under the Kudzu traces the history of two Rosenwald schools in Pender County, NC. built during the segregation era…
While doing interviews for Under the Kudzu, I met wonderful people in the Canetuck community of western Pender County. I am grateful to them, and for the opportunity to spend time with the members of the Canetuck Community Center, Inc (formerly the Canetuck Rosenwald school). Betty Barnhill Thompson and I worked together to obtain a grant to restore the exterior of that building. I have worked with her, and the rest of the board, on fundraisers and other projects. I am so grateful for Verta Kea and her family, the Thompson family, the Corbett family, the Keith family, the Forney family, the Rowell family, the Lomax family, the Fullwood family, and the Simpson family. My apologies to others who I have met who are not on this list. Truly, my life has been changed by spending time with you.
Early on, I was also privileged to meet Carrie Newkirk, who became a mentor and a dear friend. The arc of her life followed the arc of developments of education in the 20th century South: Born the daughter of a sharecropper in 1923, she attended a Rosenwald school and an Historically Black College /University (HBCU), then taught in Pender County’s African American schools. In 1966, she became one of the first African Americans in southeastern NC to desegregate a European American faculty. I had the honor of telling Carrie Newkirk’s story in the 2015 documentary Carrie Mae: An American Life.
Watch Carrie Mae: An American Life Online | Vimeo On Demand
"Carrie Mae: An American Life" (2014, 60 min.) is the story of Carrie Mae Sharpless Newkirk, born in 1923 in Duplin…
For the past three years, I have been fortunate to work with Carrie Newkirk’s son, Dr. Richard T. Newkirk. He is an alumnus of the Halfway Branch School, a school built on Rosenwald plans, the historic C.F. Pope school, and North Carolina A&T State University. He has spent more than 40 years in education, with a focus on preparing diverse ethnic and socioeconomic populations for college and career. Together, we do presentations about the practices that teachers used in historic African American schools that made them effective, in spite of being chronically under-resourced.
Bring "Lessons from the Rosenwald Schools" to Your Campus or Organization
Bring the "Lessons from the Rosenwald Schools: Appreciating African American School History and Pedagogy" to your…
Over the years I’ve lost track of exact figures, but I have put tens of thousands of both hours and dollars into this documentary work. Yet the more I learn, the more urgency I feel, as older neighbors and friends pass on. I want my African American students to know their stories. I want my African American students to know that education is their heritage. Education is not something that was given to them by the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision in 1954. From the moment they were able, African Americans sought literacy and built schools, often in the face of violence and overwhelming challenges.
I also want my teaching colleagues to know that our African American students have an incredible education heritage. Their families sacrificed more for education than any other group, yet there is a stereotype that African Americans don’t value education. As I wrote in my article “The Inversion,” that is a damaging untruth.
The Inversion: African Americans and Education (Part One)
African Americans, particularly in North Carolina, sacrificed more to build schools than any other group. Despite this…
Over time, as I visited with them, my older neighbors became willing to speak on camera about the schools their families had built, and about their own school experiences. Some of them, like Mary Royals Faison and William Jordan, went on to become teachers and leaders of these historic African American schools. Their stories are featured in Under the Kudzu (click title to stream for free on Amazon Prime Video).
Yet outside of a few alumni groups, not many people in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina today know that just a few generations ago African American families paid their taxes, then had to raise money again to obtain schools for their children. The names of philanthropists who supported early African American schools in Wilmington — most notably James H. Gregory and Samuel Williston — still enjoy recognition. However, between 1917 and 1932 thousands of local African Americans partnered with the Rosenwald Fund to build schools for their children in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties. This investment in schools expanded educational access during segregation and produced leaders whose influence still ripples across North Carolina today.
“The surprising efforts of our colored population to obtain education…are growing to a habit” John Alvord, Superintendent of the Freedman’s Bureau observed in July, 1866. African American participation in schooling exploded after the Civil War. African Americans of all ages sought literacy and built schools, even before securing the basic necessities of life. As James D. Anderson notes in his groundbreaking work The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935
“Despite what seemed like overwhelming opposition to their educational campaigns, the masses of Afro-Americans persisted in becoming literate. Their 95 percent illiteracy rate in 1860 had dropped to 70 percent in 1880 and would drop to 30 percent by 1910.” —Dr. James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935
This unrivaled gain in literacy over just five decades was a result of an intense campaign of basic literacy classes for adults and school building for children. Determined African American parents raised money to provide the schools that had been denied to them.
Nor did their drive and sacrifice for education stop at the primary school level. In a 2007 article in The Journal of Negro Education, “Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Honoring the Past, Engaging the Present, Touching the Future,” it is noted that “In the 25 years after the Civil War, approximately 100 institutions of higher learning were created to educate freed African Americans, primarily in the southern United States.” These historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) continue to play an important role in our nation as incubators of innovation and professional success.
While the Freedman’s Bureau and northern philanthropists provided seed money and logistical support for some schools, the incredible increase in literacy was largely the result of African American sacrifice for education. In a previous article “The Inversion,” I explained the system of double taxation, first described by Anderson, that was the model for most African American school construction. Southern African American families paid their taxes, then had to raise additional funds to build schools for their children.
In the five decades that followed the Civil War, formerly enslaved people in southeastern North Carolina established many schools without assistance from government or outside groups. For example, in western Pender County the tiny Love Grove school was founded by the community during Reconstruction, and later operated as a public school until 1958. In Burgaw the C.F. Pope school was established in 1891 as a school for Baptist ministers, but changed its mission to meet a growing demand for general education. It was eventually taken over by the public school system in 1939.
There were countless less formal educational efforts as well. Many people acquired basic literacy in “Sunday schools” held in newly established African American churches, or from informal classes that took place in houses or barns. Mary Royals Faison told me that around 1900 her grandfather Peter Royals (great-grandfather of District Court Judge James H. Faison III) taught reading to his neighbors in a house in Rocky Point, NC.
Despite these efforts, facilities for African American students lagged far behind those for white students. In the 1920s, large brick schools were erected to consolidate many smaller schools for European American students. Their discarded wooden buildings were sometimes repurposed as schools for African American children, but the situation was still much the same as it had been in 1914, when Nathan C. Newbold, North Carolina’s first Director of the Division of Negro Education, remarked: “The average Negro school house is really a disgrace to an independent civilized society.”
Had it not been for the philanthropic vision of Julius Rosenwald, the organizing genius of Booker T. Washington, and countless families who raised money, African American students in the Cape Fear region would have fallen even further behind their European American counterparts in the first half of the 20th century. Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck & Company, applied his business acumen to philanthropy. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, influenced Rosenwald to join the board of Tuskegee. In 1912, Rosenwald donated $25,000, and Washington used part of that donation to assist six communities near Tuskegee in building primary schools. This effort was so successful that the program was expanded and they began providing architectural plans. The African American architect and Wilmington native Robert R. Taylor, a professor at Tuskegee, helped to design the first Rosenwald school plans. They were published in the 1915 booklet “The Negro Rural School and its Relation to the Community.” (Hoffschwelle)
In 1917, Rosenwald created the Julius Rosenwald Fund to administer his philanthropic efforts. By the time the Fund ended its grants for school construction in 1932 it had assisted in the construction of 4,977 schools, 163 shops, and 217 boarding houses for teachers across the South. North Carolina communities raised funds to build 813 Rosenwald schools, more than any other state.
Wilmington-born educator George E. Davis retired from teaching at Biddle University in 1920, and was appointed “Supervisor of Rosenwald Buildings” in 1921 by Newbold. That made Davis the highest-ranking African American in the state. He traveled tirelessly, helping communities to organize and raise funds to obtain Rosenwald schools.
Dr. George E. Davis, groundbreaking African American educator, deserves a statue
He spurred school building, which aided educational access and economic growth across North Carolina
According to the Rosenwald Fund archive at Fisk University, communities in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties constructed 39 buildings on 34 school campuses, with the majority built in the 1920s. Although income for rural African American families averaged less than one dollar per day, and even that pittance was unreliable for sharecropping families, African Americans families in these three counties donated $27,375 (approximately $400,000 in today’s money) toward Rosenwald school construction.
Typically, the African American community raised at least 20% of the cost of a school, and often also donated materials and labor. The Rosenwald Fund usually matched their contribution up to about 20%, but would not release funds until the local school board agreed to complete the building and incorporate the school into the public system. Local European Americans donated as well, although their contributions did not close the enormous resource gap between the two school systems. (Hanchett)
“They wanted the students to be well-rounded…that’s why they stressed plays and reciting poems” retired educator William Jordan recalled about his teachers at Pender County Training School (PCTS) in the documentary Under the Kudzu. Jordan attended PCTS from 1948–1952. Prior to attending high school at the complex of buildings that made up PCTS in Rocky Point, he attended the one-room Bowden Rosenwald school approximately six miles to the north.
Although some scholars downplay the importance of Rosenwald schools because they believe these schools limited the students’ aspirations to trades and agriculture, oral history tells a different story. After conducting hundreds of interviews with Rosenwald school almuni and former teachers, I can say with assurance that North Carolina Rosenwald school teachers (and administrators) wanted their students to achieve “their highest potential.” They pushed their brightest students towards college, often helping them in material ways. For example, John T. Daniel, the longtime principal of Pender County Training School, convinced Mary Royals Faison’s family to allow her to attend Shaw University. Daniel and his wife also arranged for her to live and work in the house of a professor there. This ethic of mentoring and helping bright young people is also beautifully illustrated in Vanessa Siddel Walker’s book Their Highest Potential, a portrait of the Caswell County Training School in North Carolina.
The Daniels: Leaders in Excellence at a NC Rosenwald School
Although under-resourced, historic African American schools produced many professionals and civic leaders
In addition, it’s important to note that at least in North Carolina, the same liberal arts curriculum was used by all of the schools. In 1924, Newbold stated that there was just curriculum standard for all North Carolina schools, and that the standard for teacher licensure should also be the same. (Thuesen). Although much is made of the fact that there is an “Industrial Room” on all Rosenwald school plans, these spaces were often quickly converted to regular classrooms. In addition, the industrial courses that were taught at both the European American and the African American high schools of that era were electives, not core curriculum. To learn about the philosophy and impact of two industrial teachers at a Rosenwald school, see my article about SC and Venetta Anderson:
The Builders: SC and Venetta Anderson
African American educators who enriched Pender County, NC
African American residents of Brunswick County raised $2,000 for a four-room building that was completed in 1922 as the Brunswick County Training School (BCTS). The “training school” designation indicated a school that included high school grades, which at that time qualified its students to be teachers. The first BCTS building burned down just months after construction, and $4,500 of insurance money was lost in a bank failure in 1923. Undeterred, African Americans then raised $5,050 toward a new six-room BCTS building in Southport that was completed in 1924 (pictured below).
Nine wooden Rosenwald schools were built in New Hanover County, but the only Rosenwald-related school still standing in Wilmington is the stately brick building on 10th street that is the former Williston Industrial school (later Williston High School, and currently in use by Gregory Elementary). Williston originated in 1866 and occupied various buildings over the years. In the late 1920s the Rosenwald Fund began to emphasize larger, urban schools. The Fund contributed $7,600 towards the construction of the 1931, 20-classroom building and attached shop that was the new home of Williston Industrial School. In 1936 Williston was completely destroyed by fire, but it was reconstructed according to the same plans.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact of Rosenwald schools on the Cape Fear region. They made up at least half of the schools available to African American students from the 1920s to the early 1950s. Families not only contributed to their construction and maintenance, but they also boarded teachers in their homes and purchased books and equipment. Despite being chronically underfunded, Rosenwald schools across North Carolina developed a reputation for academic rigor. Link below to access Dr. Thomas W. Hanchett’s website about Rosenwald school history and school plans. His 1988 paper “The Rosenwald Schools and Black Education in North Carolina” is an important guide to NC Rosenwald schools, and was responsible for sparking a wave of scholarship and preservation in our state.
schoolhistory - History South
ROSENWALD SCHOOL HISTORY Saving the South's Rosenwald Schools by Tom Hanchett ON A RURAL ROAD in Duplin County, North…
Although openly advocating for equality would have cost them their jobs, teachers in Rosenwald schools quietly equipped their students with fortitude, critical reading, speaking and choral skills. These were qualities that would be on display to the world during the Civil Rights era. The late Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis attended a Rosenwald school in Alabama. In southeastern North Carolina, Wilmington native Joseph McNeil graduated from Williston Senior High in 1959, before becoming a leader of the 1960 Greensboro sit-in movement. The Rev. Aaron Johnson attended an historic African American school in Willard, North Carolina and later marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and became a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Rosenwald Schools | National Trust for Historic Preservation
Booker T. Washington the Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, philanthropist and president of Sears Roebuck, built…
According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, only about 10% of Rosenwald buildings remain standing, but their legacy lives on in the many education, business, government and professional leaders they nurtured. As far as I know, no accurate report exists that tracks the fate of the many other kinds of historic schools built by African African communities, although their stories and impact can still sometimes be uncovered locally.
Post-script: As southern school districts felt legal pressure to desegregate, they adopted a strategy of delay and constructed “equalization schools” in the 1950s to demonstrate that they were, in fact, providing separate but equal facilities. In many North Carolina counties, the culture of academic rigor and the traditions of African American leadership carried over to these schools. Please see my article “The Inversion (Part Two): African Americans and Education — The Equalization and Desegregation Era”
The Inversion (Part Two): African Americans and Education — The Equalization and Desegregation Era
Desegregation meant the loss of African American school leadership and education heritage
Bring "Lessons from the Rosenwald Schools" to Your Campus or Organization
Bring the "Lessons from the Rosenwald Schools: Appreciating African American School History and Pedagogy" to your…
Allen, Walter R., et al. “Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Honoring the Past, Engaging the Present, Touching the Future.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 76, no. 3, 2007, pp. 263–280. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40034570. Accessed 27 July 2020
Anderson, James D. The Education of Blacks in the South: 1860–1935. Univ. of North Carolina Pr., 1988.
Deutsch, Stephanie. You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South. Northwestern University Press, 2011.
Fisk University Rosenwald Fund Card File Database http://rosenwald.fisk.edu/?module=search accessed 7/27/2020
Hanchett, Thomas W. “The Rosenwald Schools and Black Education in North Carolina .” North Carolina Historical Review, vol. LXV, no. 4, Oct. 1988, pp. 387–444.
Hoffschwelle, Mary S. The Rosenwald Schools of the American South. University Press of Florida, 2006.
McNeil, Joseph (Joseph Alfred), 1942-. http://crdl.usg.edu/people/m/mcneil_joseph_joseph_alfred_1942/?Welcome. Accessed 28 July 2020.
Newbold, Nathan Carter | NCpedia. https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/newbold-nathan-carter. Accessed 28 July 2020.
Rev. Aaron John, Cleveland. Man from Macedonia. Bertrams Print On Demand, 2010. Open WorldCat, http://www.vlebooks.com/vleweb/product/openreader?id=none&isbn=9781449700287.
“Rosenwald Schools.” History South, https://www.historysouth.org/rosenwaldhome/. Accessed 27 July 2020.
Rosenwald Schools | National Trust for Historic Preservation. https://savingplaces.org/places/rosenwald-schools?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIouf47ofu6gIVi4rICh20ZQTcEAAYASAAEgJ7p_D_BwE. Accessed 27 July 2020.
“Schoolhistory.” History South, https://www.historysouth.org/schoolhistory/. Accessed 28 July 2020.
Thuesen, Sarah Caroline. Greater than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919–1965. The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
Walker, Vanessa Siddel. Their Highest Potential: An African American School Community in the Segregated South. University of North Carolina Press, 1996. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807866191_walker. Accessed 27 July 2020.