Education is a long game—perhaps the longest game there is. We can’t see the benefits of it in the moment or even in the immediate aftermath of class. It takes years to see them. There are few things that have been the focus of greater controversy in American history than education and access to literacy.
For part of the 19th century, it was illegal for many people to attend school or learn to read in North Carolina, specifically African Americans. Education of girls was considered a waste; Native Americans were barred from “whites only” establishments. As NCPedia reports:
“Amendments to the state constitution in 1875 provided for segregated public schools but made no mention of Indians. Lumbees were disallowed from attending white schools and, consistent with their resistance of having laws restricting blacks applied to them, they would not attend schools for African Americans.”
Ten years later a member of the NC General Assembly, Hamilton McMillan, sponsored a bill that led to the creation of a “normal school.” Normal schools were teacher-training schools. Many have grown to become full four-year colleges. The Croatan Normal School founded to educate the Lumbee grew into UNC Pembroke.
In Wilmington we trace the beginning of public education to just after the Civil War, thanks to the efforts of Amy Morris Bradley. A Union Army nurse, Bradley arrived here the Christmas after the war ended.
Picture this: a Yankee teacher lady walking around, knocking on people’s doors, and telling them they should send their children to the school she wants to start. Needless to say, she didn’t get the best side of Southern hospitality. In fact the best that can be said is many women refused to talk to her. Others actually spit on her. There were editorials in the newspaper about her that, frankly, are embarrassing to read today.
She managed the impossible: With the backing of Mary Porter Tileston Hemenway’s money, she got a school built and opened in 1866. Early enrollment was low, but shortly thereafter she had expanded beyond her wildest dreams and eventually served as the school system’s superintendent starting in 1869. Despite the less-than-loving initial reception she received in Wilmington, when she passed away in 1904, two generations of children had excelled in her schools and had grown to love her. Her headstone in Oakdale Cemetery reads “Our School Mother.”
The Wilmington Messenger—infamous to this generation of Wilmigntonians as the white-owned newspaper that antagonized the African-American-owned Daily Record in the events leading up to the Massacre of 1898—reported on January 27, 1904 that a group of Miss Bradley’s students gathered in The Upper Room at Tileston School to raise money for The Amy Morris Bradley Medal. The medal would be presented each year to a student of meritorious scholarship.
Talk about winning the hearts and minds of the community!
Concurrent with Miss Bradley’s work, operating in parallel, one might say, we find the African-American school system for the children of newly freed slaves. From the City of Wilmington’s Guide to African-American Heritage:
“The Freedmen’s Bureau began at Williston in 1865 as an elementary school for African Americans. The American Missionary Association operated the school, which was named in honor of the Massachusetts benefactor, Samuel Williston. It became the city’s first public school for African Americans when it was purchased in 1873 by the city’s Board of Education.”
African-American education continued to be separate from the education of white children until Dr. Eaton began a concentrated campaign to secure equal resources for African-American children. He sued the New Hanover County School system in 1954 for equal facilities for white and black schools as delineated by the “Separate but Equal” ruling from Plessy vs. Ferguson. The result of the case was the major building expansion and improvement program that marked the early 1960s in Wilmington. Later, he sued to force the actual desegregation of New Hanover County Schools. Dr. Eaton was a civil rights activist whose focus at home and the entire community bears his legacy.
Charles Chesnutt, author of “The Marrow of Tradition,” one of the novelizations of the events of Wilmington in 1898, grew up in the Fayetteville area and got a teaching certificate. Thomas W. Hanchett notes in “The Rosenwald Schools and Black Education in North Carolina”:
“In July 1874, barely past his 18th birthday, Chesnutt was called to teach summer school in the Mecklenburg countryside. At Moore’s sanctuary he was told that people had used up the school funds in building a schoolhouse and had no money left for a teacher.”
Other disappointments at Morrow’s Turnout and Rockwell Church (later a Rosenwald site) led him to search out a school in “a church called Jonesville or Jonahville” in the Mallard Creek area. “By dint of stopping and inquiring at every house,” he recalled, “and by climbing fences and crossing cotton fields, I arrived at Jonesville. Where the ‘ville’ was I am not able to say, for there was but one house within nearly a half mile of the ‘church.’ The church itself was a very dilapidated log structure, without a window: but there was no real need of one, for the cracks between the logs furnished a plentiful supply.”
Rosenwald schools were a joint venture between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck Co. from the mid 1910s to early 1930s. African-American communities would raise funds toward school construction that Rosenwald would match. The schools are largely located in rural areas, with white board exteriors and lots of windows, since electric power was not readily available.
Many people are still alive who remember the events of The Wilmington Ten. Following the desegregation of New Hanover County Schools, many African-American students felt they were not fully integrated into daily student life but were treated less than second-class citizens at school. As negotiations between student organizers and school system devolved, tensions escalated and 10 young people wound up in a church involved in a battle with the KKK. The National Guard occupied the city. We have yet to really address or make peace with the events of The Wilmington Ten. (Disclaimer: This is a highly simplified description of the events; it is far more involved than the little discussed here.)
So the history of education in our area comes with a narrative featuring several drivers: race, economics and power.
Right now New Hanover County Schools is looking at re-drawing the school district maps for 2020. Roughly 3,700 to 4,000 students are expected to be moved with the school redistricting. Somehow, when initial community partners were selected to work on redistricting, they chose three white people. Not a single person of color in our community got picked. Our community still remembers The Wilmington Ten and the National Guard occupying the city, but here we are. How tone deaf is it that not a single person of color was selected to be on the initial committee? As a result of the justifiable public outcry it’s been rectified, but really?
Recently, I got invited to sit in on yet another meeting of what I have started referring to as “the well-meaning white liberals club.” What I mean is, for the last two decades, I seem to see the usual suspects showing up for a variety of organizing events. They’re mostly white, mostly over 50, and well intentioned, but frankly they’re also pretty clueless. When asked why everyone in the room is white, the answer invariably offered is something along the lines of, “We are open to everyone—everyone’s invited.”
Given the history of this nation, and this city, specifically, that might be the epitome of the blindness that is white privilege. We have over 300 years of actions that include enslavement, the criminalization of education, and the terrifying despotism of Jim Crow that was laced with a minefield of double standards. It precedes a rather sweet statement that “everyone is welcome.”
My friends, this takes effort. It also takes hearing things you don’t want to listen to and more so it will be uncomfortable. Because the root of a liberal arts education is to explore ideas and experiences that are different from yours. The opposite—the flight from that—is what has driven attitudes toward education locally since it was a private matter for wealthy boys only.
It also means showing up for events that fit into your philosophy instead of just decrying the situation from the comfort of your arm chair. Are you genuinely so shocked our public schools are effectively resegregated? Well, with the redrawing of our school districts, now is the time to get active about effecting real change.
Clyde Edgerton’s refusal to ignore a blatant abuse of power to keep children of color out of a coveted school program has taken tremendous courage (read encore’s Live Local from April 2, 2019). It might sound like a small thing, one school program. But these things have meaning and value. If we are prepared to ignore them, then it is another action we are condoning.
Actions speak louder than words, and right now, we are looking at a long history of actions that make those words of welcome sound pretty hollow.