Last night the local history and genealogy librarian from the Rocky Mount, NC Public Library gave a great presentation on a problem she had tracking down a patron’s Revolutionary War ancestor. The complication she had with the ancestor, who was named John Evans, was that a previous researcher had combined records of two different John Evans into one person. One lived in Anson County and one lived in Nash County. She was able to discern these two individuals by looking closely at deeds and pension applications. The pension applications really sealed the the deal and the patron was was informed that the John Evans she was looking for lived in Nash County and was forced by threat of hanging into the patriot militia for 18 months as punishment for talking about joining a band of Tories in Edgecombe County. One of the resources she used was the Southern Campaign Revolutionary War Pension Applications website. I had used the site before but for some reason I had forgotten about it, so today I’ve had a lot of fun poking around looking for my distant relations that were involved in the American Revolution. It is a great resource, go try it out!
One of my volunteers, Monk Moore, pointed out a picture of Ava Gardner in the 1941 Atlantic Christian College Yearbook. It turns out she was only partly through her freshman year when she was found by a modeling agency and dropped out of college. The picture lists her as being from Wilson, NC, which is where she lived with her mother and attended high school at Rock Ridge HS.
After scanning the photograph collection of the 1920s era Wilson County schools , I noticed that two pictures were left out of the collection of but were included in the 1924 Public Schools of Wilson County report. These photographs were of the Sallie Barbour School and the Wilson Colored High School (Later Darden High School). Both schools were for African American students. The Sallie Barbour School, also called the Wilson Colored Graded School, was originally built in 1898 and was for children until they were 13 years old. Julius Rosenwald, president of the Sears Roebuck & Co. built 5,000 schools for African Americans throughout the rural south and there were 16 Rosenwald Schools in Wilson County with the Sallie Barbour School being one of them.
However, after the seventh grade there was no high school to attend for African American youth in Wilson County, so those that could afford it or were well connected sent their children to boarding schools like the one that Shaw University operated in Raleigh. Those who could not pay to go to boarding school had to end their schooling and therefore had even more finite prospects in the already limited and hostile environment of the Jim Crow south. In my last blog post I mentioned the incident where Charles L. Coon slapped an African American teacher named Mrs. Norwell and the community took their children out of the public schools. After the incident the African American community stated that they would not put their children back into the school system unless a high school was built for them. Wilson County’s school board finally agreed and bought land on Carroll Street for the building of a high school. Originally called the Wilson Colored High School it opened in 1924, and in 1939 it was renamed Darden in memory of Charles H. Darden, a former slave who became a funeral home owner and one Wilson’s most prominent African American leaders and proponents of education.
As a consequence of trying to discern the photographer(s) of a collection of photographs of every school in Wilson County in the 1920’s and the reasoning behind why someone made such a complete photographic record, I fortuitously came upon a detailed report on the Wilson County school system during the same period with copies of the same photographs in the report.
In 1924 the Wilson County Board of Education published a report on the progress of the preceding ten years of the educational system in Wilson County entitled, The Public Schools of Wilson County. If the stats were accurate it looked like the educational system was doing extraordinarily well under the dynamic leadership of the school superintendent Charles L. Coon, who had been superintendent since 1907. The stats show exponential increases in all areas from the value of school property ($128,000 in 1913 to $1,482,330 in 1924) to an increase in enrollment by 68% and an increase in attendance by 82%. Also, four new high schools were built during the period and the county’s first school buses were implemented carrying 2,200 children daily.
All of these achievements would be considered remarkable in any decade. But the fact that they were achieved in the early 1900’s in a mostly rural, agricultural county makes it all the more impressive. The driving force behind the positive changes was Coon’s method of consolidating schools, creating school transportation, implementing a county-wide school tax, issuing bonds for school construction, implementing strict discipline for students and teachers and being very selective in hiring the very best teachers available while paying them the highest salaries in the state. All of these policies together brought about the blooming of education in Wilson County.
However, not all was rosey. African American teacher’s pay, at $383.00, was still strikingly lower than the white teacher’s pay, $1,031.00, even though it had been increased 100 percent in the preceding ten years. This is evidence of the long road that was yet to be travelled to true universal education for all students, especially since Charles L. Coon was the leading advocate in North Carolina for equal education for African American children, a stance that made him not a few enemies in some southern states. (Contrarily, Charles Coon had caused an uproar in the African American community in Wilson County after he slapped a black teacher when she argued with him about the performance of her students. The enraged black community took their children out of the county schools for a period of time. So Charles, despite his work for equality, still exhibited some decidedly non-modern traits.)
Some of Coon’s tough policies had their detractors, especially the strict requirements for teachers written into their contracts, which many of the newspapers in North Carolina jumped on and ridiculed as absurd once they got wind of it.
Here is an extract of the contract and it is a wee bit puritanical:
I will take a vital interest in church and Sunday School work and other community activities; that I will not entertain company until late hours at night and thus render my school work next day inefficient; that I will not attend sorry moving picture and vaudeville shows; that I will not fall in love or become familiar with high school pupils; that I will not attend card and dancing parties; that I will not fail to use good sense and discretion in the company I keep; that I will use the best endeavors during the year to improve my work as a teacher; and that I will do nothing to bring disrepute on the home in which I live or to cause right thinking people to speak disparagingly of me and of my work (Willard, 1966).
But the overall great success of the policies that Coon had introduced caused other counties in North Carolina to adopt some of his methodologies, especially in the areas of school consolidation and school transportation.
Now all of the pictures produced for this report can be found on our Flickr page. Many of the images are of the one room school houses that were abolished by Charles L. Coon in his school consolidation, so ironically some of the only photographic records of these historic buildings are from his survey for the The Public Schools of Wilson County report.
Also, I never found out who the photographers were.
Willard, George-Anne (1968). Charles Lee Coon: North Carolina Crusader for Social Justice. Unpublished Master’s thesis. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The Public Schools of Wilson County (1924).