John T. Daniel and Leona B. Daniel c. 1955. Picture courtesy of Dr. Ida Daniel Dark
In the 1940s, Mary Royals faced a difficult decision. Soon to graduate from Pender County Training School (PCTS), she had to choose between attending college or continuing to help her grandparents on their farm in Rocky Point. At that pivotal moment, two people stepped in: John T. Daniel, Sr., who was principal of PCTS from 1931 to 1961, and his wife, educator Leona B. Daniel. They told Mary’s grandparents that “if you let her go, she’ll come back and help you one day.” This intervention by the Daniels encouraged Mary to work her way through Shaw University, and is just one example of how involved the Daniels were in the lives of their students.
Later, Mr. Daniel would give Mary Royals her first job, which was administrative work at PCTS. She quickly grew into a teaching role, and after 1959 she was the Chair of the Home Economics department at PCTS. You can hear her story in her own words in the documentary Under the Kudzu (available on Amazon Prime Video).
PCTS was founded in 1917 by African American community leaders who donated land and money (in addition to the taxes they paid). By doing so they obtained a grant from the Rosenwald Fund, which in turn leveraged public funds to complete the the first building at PCTS. The Rosenwald Fund provided partial support for southern African American schools from 1912 to 1932. North Carolina’s African American communities raised funds to construct 813 Rosenwald buildings, far more than any other state. Over the life of PCTS, from 1917 to 1968, the campus in Rocky Point became a complex of eight buildings. At least four of them were partially funded by the Rosenwald Fund. Other buildings, Mary Royals Faison stated in the 2012 documentary Under the Kudzu, were built by the PTA and PCTS agriculture teacher S.C. Anderson.
African American families in Pender County built 19 Rosenwald buildings on 15 campuses, as well as several other schools. Buildings, however, are only part of the story. While Pender’s wood-frame Rosenwald schools were small compared to the brick schools provided for European American students, their teachers and administrators were extremely dedicated. From PCTS, the Daniels’ impact ripples down to the present day. These are a few of the many notable PCTS graduates: Ambassador Mattie Sharpless, artist Ivey Hayes, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel and state official Cleveland Simpson, and educator William Jordan.
John T. Daniel, Sr. was born in Chatham County, NC in 1900, where the school available to him did not offer the high school grades. He made his way to Greensboro to attend North Carolina A&T, but due to the circumstances he had to complete high school first, while also working full time. He graduated from NC A&T in 1929. Leona B. Daniel was born in Washington, NC in 1908 and attended Winston-Salem Teachers’ College.
The couple moved to Rocky Point in 1931, where he became PCTS principal and she taught eighth grade. In 1950, Mrs. Daniel was appointed to be the Jeanes Supervisor of the Negro elementary schools in Pender County. In the 1950s both of the Daniels did summer graduate study at Columbia University in New York.
Dr. Ida Daniel Dark, who grew up on the campus of PCTS where her parents worked, recalls that her father had a “strong belief of the importance of an education, and a stoic demeanor. He attempted to expose the students to a variety of involvements.” Mrs. Daniel was also a mentor to many students. To this day, one of her former students sends a card to Dr. Dark every year to commemorate the influence Mrs. Daniel had on her life.
Dr. Dark and her brother, the late surgeon Dr. John Daniel, Jr., were both products of their parents’ ideals. She says that for them “every setting was a learning setting.” They were a musical family. Mrs. Daniel loved to sing, and on some weekends Mr. Daniel played in the band at the Officer’s Club in Wilmington. Dr. Dark herself went on to earn degrees in music, and was honored at the White House in 1993 for her work using music in special education.
The Daniels’ legacy had a profound impact, not just on Pender County, but on North Carolina and beyond. Under Mr. Daniel’s leadership, the percentage of PCTS students who attended college increased to 25% in 1956. This was a remarkable achievement for a segregated school in a rural county. In 1961, Mr. Daniel retired after three decades as PCTS principal. He passed away the same year. After his death, Mrs. Daniel was a respected supervisor in Wake County, NC until 1973, and she passed in 1977.
Their family can be assured that the lives of John T. Daniel, Sr. and Leona B. Daniel fulfilled the sentiments that he expressed in his retirement letter: “I have striven to give my best service to the children and the community. I hope many have profited.”
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Pender-Topsail Post & Voice