At the Burgaw Library (103 S. Cowan St., Burgaw, NC) at 6pm on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, Claudia Stack, Ed.M. & Richard T. Newkirk, Ed.D. will share their newest documentary, Lessons from the Rosenwald Schools (click title for film trailer) . This short film was created using clips selected from hundreds of interviews conducted by Stack over the past 20 years, and includes stories from alumni and former teachers. The film highlights thematic experiences students had at historic African American schools, while veteran educators Newkirk and Stack provide commentary. They will also answer questions after the film showing. This event is free and open to the public.
During the segregation era, African American families in Pender County, NC and across the South paid their taxes, then had to raise funds again to obtain schools for their children. According to scholar James D. Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South 1860-1935, African Americans sought education from the moment they were able, increasing their literacy rate from 5% to 70% between 1860 and 1910.
Southeastern North Carolina (SENC) was significantly impacted by this educational movement. State legislators who had been formerly enslaved, including Abraham H. Galloway (b. 1837 in Brunswick County), fought to include public education for all in the 1868 NC State Constitution. See Fire of Freedom, David S. Cecelski’s riveting account of Galloway’s life, to learn more. During the Reconstruction era, African American pastors in SENC also established their first independent churches and “Sunday schools,” teaching parishioners to read using the Bible. For example, the Rev. Richard Keaton founded the first Sunday schools and Missionary Baptist Churches in the area that would become Pender County in 1875.
Between 1865 and 1917, African American communities in SENC contributed to creating many kinds of schools, both public and private. In Pender County, NC, there are several examples of historic African American schools of diverse origins. For example, the Love Grove school was built next to the Love Grove church (now defunct) in western Pender County during Reconstruction. This small one-teacher school was founded by private citizens, but then taken over by the public school system. It housed up to 50 students of various grades and was in use as a public school until 1958. The building now serves as a tool shed. The CF Pope School in Burgaw was founded in 1891 by the Middle District Missionary Baptist Association, and Pender County Schools took over its operation in 1936.
Until 1898, Pender County’s public schools operated on a “township” system, with two school districts per township: One for European American students, and one for African Americans. Each district had to provide its own school building, with the state and county supplying three months’ salary for teachers. Under the township system, each district could vote to tax itself at a higher rate for just its own schools. In 1898, Pender County pooled its school funds, and changed to county-wide management. In 1900, then Superintendent of Schools Pender County T.H.W. McIntire wrote a letter to the NC State Superintendent and expressed the opinion that “I would recommend a return to the township system of two years ago, as the District plan has multiplied quarrels one hundred percent… I would recommend that the Districts [again] be allowed to tax themselves, as this does away with the negro bugaboo– or helping the negro.”
Instead of a return to the township system, however, North Carolina legalized the issuance of school bonds by counties, and by 1922 Pender County– as did counties across North Carolina–began issuing bonds (public debt) to build consolidated brick schools for European American children. They also used bond funds to provide transportation to these schools. All of the taxpayers in Pender County were now responsible for public debt that supplied new schools and transportation for just one race. Examples of these buildings that still stand are the Topsail School (now Pender County Government Annex), the Atkinson School (now a private library), and the old Rocky Point Primary School.
If it had not been for the Rosenwald Fund, African American school facilities in SENC would have fallen even further behind. In brief, Rosenwald schools were schools that were built between 1912 and 1932 by African American communities that received technical and financial assistance from Julius Rosenwald (mostly via the Rosenwald Fund), whose contribution in turn leveraged support from local school boards.
The Rosenwald school building effort, structured as a matching grant program, began with a $25,000 gift Julius Rosenwald made in 1912 to Tuskegee in support of teacher training. At the behest of Booker T. Washington and Clinton J. Calloway, Rosenwald allowed $2800 of that money to be used in a pilot program to help communities build small rural schools. From 1912, when the first six Rosenwald schools were built in Alabama, to 1932, when the Rosenwald Fund ceased funding schools, the program helped to construct over 5,000 buildings for education across the South: 4,977 schools, 163 shops, and 217 boarding houses for teachers (Hoffschwelle The Rosenwald Schools of the American South, Appendix 2)
Communities in Pender, New Hanover and Brunswick Counties built 35 Rosenwald buildings. Pender County families helped to build 18 Rosenwald buildings on 15 campuses. As teachers and citizens, Stack and Newkirk are convinced that this history still matters. Some people have suggested that these schools, built through such sacrifice by African American families, are no longer relevant. As Rosenwald schools were rooted in the injustice of the segregation era, it would be more comfortable to ignore this chapter of history. This impulse comes from a point of view that defines the schools chiefly as other--non-white, limited-- without an appreciation for the rich inner life of the institutions and the dedication of the people who created them.
In the process of doing oral history interviews with Rosenwald school alumni and former teachers, Stack came to understand a fundamental truth that Newkirk already knew: The teachers in these historic schools fostered high expectations, and used many effective pedagogical practices. Stack and Newkirk want to help teachers revisit these methods. Most of all, they want educators today to know that African Americans students have a rich education heritage.
Portions of this article are excerpted from Rosenwald School Reflections: Documentation and Preservation by Claudia Stack (2013)