The Canetuck Rosenwald School will celebrate 100 years on Nov. 5, 2022

Claudia Stack

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The Canetuck Rosenwald School with teachers and students, newly completed in 1922North Carolina State Archives, Department of Public Instruction

The Canetuck Rosenwald School (now Canetuck Community Center, Inc.), completed in 1922, has served western Pender County for 100 years. On Saturday, November 5, 2022 from 11 AM to 3 PM there will be a centennial celebration for the former school, which is located at 6098 Canetuck Road in Currie (follow signs for Canetuck Missionary Baptist Church, which is next door). The celebration will include tours of the historic building, outdoor games, food, and a history program between 1 PM and 2 PM. Marguerite Bibbs, former president of the Community Center, and Kenneth Keith, a retired Pender County Schools administrator, will speak about the legacy of the Canetuck Rosenwald School. The Hon. Judge James H. Faison, III will speak about the NAACP scholarships that he and his wife, Angela Faison, have established for local students. The short documentary “Seeing it in Color,” for which Pender Early College High School students interviewed Canetuck alumni under the direction of Claudia Stack, will also be shown. All are welcome. The Board of the Canetuck Community Center, Inc. requests that masks be worn indoors (masks are available free at the door).

Starting in 1914, African American residents petitioned the Pender County School Board three times for a school. The school did not become a reality until the community raised $1,226 and obtained support from the Rosenwald Fund. Prior to the Rosenwald school opening in 1922, school was sometimes held in an old lodge building, which Lois Keith (1916-2008) said frightened children because it was so dark.

The African American residents of the surrounding community sacrificed to raise money for the school. The $1,226 they donated represented a large sum for sharecroppers and laborers who only earned (on average) fifty cents to one dollar per day.

We never had that opportunity [to read and write], but we wanted our children to learn, so we knocked on doors. Sometimes we got pennies, sometimes a dime and once in a while somebody would give us a dollar. We didn’t stop until that building down the road was going up. -George Corbett of Canetuck, as quoted by Dora Corbett in the documentary film Under the Kudzu

The modesty of the two-room Canetuck Rosenwald school belies its importance over the decades. In the 100 years since the community contributed $1,226 in addition to their taxes (the equivalent of $19,758 in today’s dollars) to erect it, the building has served as a school, meeting space, polling place, disaster relief site, concert venue, family reunion site, and more.

When the Canetuck Rosenwald School was constructed during the segregation era, African American families paid their taxes, and then had to raise more funds to obtain schools for their children. In the early 1920s Pender County passed bond offerings and constructed consolidated brick schools for European American students. Some of these buildings still stand today, such as the Topsail School (in use as the Pender County Government Annex) and the Atkinson School (in use as a library).

The bonds meant that all taxpayers in Pender County had to repay the public debt incurred for schools that only European American students could attend. Meanwhile, Pender County’s African American students (roughly half of the school population) attended school in old churches, barns, and wooden schools that were passed down from the European American students. If it had not been for the sacrifices of Pender’s African American families, combined with an innovative idea developed by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, schools for African American students here would have remained starkly inadequate.

In 1912, philanthropist Julius Rosenwald joined the board of Tuskegee Institute (now University) at the invitation of its founder, Booker T. Washington. Although Rosenwald valued education highly, he himself never completed high school before joining his family’s clothing business. There is currently an effort to create a National Park to commemorate Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Schools. The website for this effort explains how the first Rosenwald schools were started:

At Washington’s invitation, Rosenwald joined the Board of Trustees of the Tuskegee Institute and agreed to a pilot project providing funds that, added to the funds already raised, enabled six rural communities in Alabama to build schoolhouses. This project was the beginning of the program that, in coordination with local governments and communities, led to the construction of 5,357 schools and related buildings in 15 Southern states.

As author Stephanie Deutsch states on her website for her critically acclaimed 2011 book You Need a Schoolhouse, which traces the relationship between Washington and Rosenwald:

The son of German Jewish immigrants, Rosenwald never graduated from high school yet he became a decisive, effective business executive and a visionary thinker about philanthropy. Feeling that it was luck as much as effort and skill that had brought him his extraordinary fortune, he wished to use the bulk of it for the good of his country and he was willing to reach beyond his own sphere of knowledge and comfort to find ways to do so. His contributions – of money but also of his time, attention and enthusiasm — were great and their impact lasting.

The Rosenwald school building movement had a profound impact on Pender County. By 1930, half of Pender’s 30 schools for African American children were Rosenwald schools. In all, Pender County’s African American communities built 18 Rosenwald buildings on 15 campuses (Fisk Rosenwald School Database). However, it’s also important to note that Pender County’s African American communities were pursuing education and raising funds for schools (in addition to the taxes they paid) before, during and after the Rosenwald school program.

For example, during the Reconstruction era, the Love Grove community in western Pender County constructed a small, one-room building where one teacher taught six to seven grades until the late 1950s. In 1891, the Middle District Missionary Baptist Association established what eventually became the CF Pope School in Burgaw, NC. Started as a school for ministers, the school transitioned to a general education curriculum as African American families sought education for their children, even sending them to board in Burgaw so that they could attend.

The Canetuck school was built on the two-teacher Nashville plan (East or West facing) and the building retains its simple lines and even (under paneling) the original pale green and white interior paint scheme that was designed to reduce glare. Click here to learn more about Rosenwald school buildings on Dr. Thomas W. Hanchetts's History South website.

The Canetuck school operated from 1922 to 1960 as a two-teacher school, and at various times offered the first through the sixth or first through the seventh grades. When the West Pender School opened in 1957, all of the small schools serving African American students in western Pender County were sent to the new school the same year, with the exception of Canetuck students. They were transferred to West Pender in 1960.

With two large classrooms once separated by a movable partition, the Canetuck school features several features of classic Rosenwald Fund school plans: Large windows that allow indirect light so that shadows would not fall across the page on which the student was writing, two cloakrooms, a small stage area, and an “industrial classroom” at the front of the building that was in fact never used for industrial education.

Although some scholars claim the industrial rooms on Rosenwald school plans are proof of an agenda to provide an education that would only suffice for manual labor jobs, in fact the curriculum was the same for all NC schools during that era. Nathan Carter Newbold (1871-1957), the longtime director of the NC’s Division of Negro Education, ensured that all NC schools followed the same liberal arts curriculum. The “industrial" classroom at Canetuck, as in most other elementary NC Rosenwald schools, was quickly put to other uses. In the case of Canetuck, it was used as a kitchen.

While the genesis of the Canetuck school was the families’ determination and the $1,226 they raised, there were other contributions. In 1921, local landowner Benjamin Franklin Keith and his wife Lily donated four plus acres for the school. The Rosenwald Fund contributed $800, and Pender County spent $674 in public funds to build the two-room Canetuck school.

Of the 18 Rosenwald buildings built on 15 campuses in Pender County, the Canetuck Rosenwald school is the best preserved. It is a rare and valuable cultural asset for, as the National Trust for Historic Preservation notes,

Of the 5,357 schools, shops, and teacher homes constructed between 1917 and 1932, only 10–12 percent are estimated to survive today.

Alumnus Andrew Corbett (1935-2013), who attended the Canetuck school from 1940-1946, recalled that a typical day began with the Lord’s Prayer. He said his teachers’ constant message was “that we should love everybody.” Betty B. Thompson, who attended Canetuck from 1947-1951, recalled that the teachers encouraged her to excel. One teacher, Helen Foy Hall, took her to Wilmington to reward her for good grades. Thompson later earned two Master's degrees and became an award-winning educator in New Jersey. She attributes her success in college to the foundation she received in Pender County Rosenwald schools.

Lois Keith, who started first grade at the Canetuck school in 1922, the year it opened, went on to attend the Pender County Training School (PCTS) in Rocky Point, another Rosenwald school. She then worked for decades as a baby nurse in New York. She returned to the Canetuck community upon her retirement, and in the early 1970s gathered support to renovate her beloved school. They formed the Canetuck Community Senior Center. Many local families donated time, effort and resources to the Center. The Bibbs, Keas, Corbetts, Thompsons, Keiths, Capers, Forneys, Rowells, Lomaxes, Simpsons, Fullwoods, Fennells, Smiths and other families have all contributed in various ways.

Keith passed away in 2008. Since that time, the board changed the name to the Canetuck Community Center, Inc. and built on the start that the founding members made. In 2009, alumna and Secretary to the Board Thompson, along with volunteer Claudia Stack, wrote a grant application that resulted in the Center receiving funding from the Lowe’s Charitable and Educational Fund for a complete exterior restoration in 2010. The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) administered this grant. Through this grant the roof, windows and siding were repaired, the building was painted, and insulation was added for energy efficiency.

Over the past decade the Canetuck Community Center, Inc. has enjoyed the support of very special patrons. The granddaughter of Julius Rosenwald, Elizabeth Rosenwald Varet, visited Canetuck in 2013 along with her husband Michael A. Varet. They came at the invitation of Thompson and Stack, who met them at the first National Trust for Historic Preservation Rosenwald School Conference (held at Tuskegee University in 2012). Sadly, Michael A. Varet passed away in 2019, but Elizabeth Rosenwald Varet has continued their generous support of the Center through the family’s Middle Road Foundation.

In 2019, the Canetuck Community Center was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also received a plaque from the Historic Wilmington Foundation. The building continues to serve the community as a place for family reunions, gospel concerts, educational events, disaster relief, and as a polling place. Canetuck alumni carry on a tradition of service at the former Canetuck Rosenwald school, which still exists at the heart of its community one hundred years after their families sacrificed so much to obtain a school for their children. The Board of the Canetuck Community Center, Inc. hopes that you will come out on Saturday, Nov 5th, 2022 between 11 AM and 3 PM to celebrate this remarkable part of Pender County’s education heritage. The history program will start at 1 PM, and we hope to see you there at 6098 Canetuck Road, Currie, NC.

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.

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