Book events highlight Pender County, Rosenwald School history

Claudia Stack

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Four men working on the Sloop Point Rosenwald School c. 1922Photo byNC Archives

This article includes information from a press release put out by Pender County Tourism, as well as additional research by Claudia Stack about Pender County Rosenwald Schools.

In the week of April 29 through May 6, three local authors – Curtis Hardison, Claudia Stack, and Gary Trawick - will be featured at local events. The events include the Pender Arts Council’s first gala, slated for the evening of April 29 at the former Dees Drug Store, 111 W. Wright St., and the annual Spring Fest on May 6 on the courthouse square in historic downtown Burgaw. Pender County Library will host two programs on May 4, 6 p.m. at the Hampstead Library and May 5 at 5 p.m. at the Burgaw Main Library.

“All three authors have documented various aspects of Pender County history,” said Tammy Proctor, Pender County Tourism director.

Griot: The Evolution of Edgecombe by Curtis Hardison (available on Amazon) documents 13 generations of families from slaves, Janey, Tuney, and Sangho Shook, in Topsail Township. Hardison, who was born and raised in Pender County’s community of Edgecombe, attended the Rosenwald schools of Sloop Point and Rocky Point before serving in the United States Air Force and the United States Secret Service. He resides in Washington D.C.

“This book represents the culmination of more than 40 years of exhaustive research into the creation of a family tree that details many of the family branches that have evolved from three Africans,” said Hardison.

Hardison attended Rosenwald Schools in Pender County for both elementary and high school. Rosenwald schools were built through matching funds and building plans supplied by the Rosenwald Fund. The school building program began in 1912 as an innovative pilot near Tuskegee Institute (now University) in Alabama, after educator Booker T. Washington asked philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to help African American communities build schools. North Carolina’s African American communities organized and raised funds to build 813 Rosenwald schools, more than any other state.

During the segregation era, Pender County’s African American families paid their taxes, then had to raise funds again to obtain schools for their children. According to the Pender County School census, in 1930 there were 30 small (mostly one and two-room) schools operating for African American children in our county. Half of these schools were Rosenwald Schools. The Fisk Rosenwald School Database reveals that between 1917 and 1930, Pender County families built 18 Rosenwald buildings on 15 campuses in Pender County. The additional three buildings were a classroom building, a shop building, and a teacherage (teachers’ boarding house), all at Pender County Training School.

In order to obtain the Sloop Point Rosenwald School, Edgecombe’s African American community donated $513 in 1922, the equivalent of $8,336 in today’s money. These were funds that Edgecomb’s families donated in addition to paying their taxes, in order to help construct the one-room wood frame building. By contrast, in the 1920s Pender County issued school bonds (debt that had to be repaid by all taxpayers in Pender County) to build the large brick Topsail School in Hampstead, and the other centralized brick schools for European American students. Public funds were also used to provide transportation to those schools. However, in the 1920s and 1930s African Americans had to provide their own transportation, and many walked up to five miles to attend school.

Despite the fact that Pender County’s historic African American schools were under-resourced, many of their graduates, like Hardison, went on to successful professional careers. Dr. Johnny Batts, who also grew up in Edgecombe, was also a student of legendary Sloop Point teacher Lillie Mae Billingslea. Batts was a student at Sloop Point Rosenwald School from 1948 to 1954 and he recalls in the new film "Lessons from the Rosenwald Schools" (available on Vimeo) that Ms. Billingslea cultivated his talents in math, science, and music.

School Belongs to Me by Claudia Stack, a picture book based on the history of the Canetuck Rosenwald School in western Pender County, is the winner of a 2022 Bookfest award for children’s multicultural books. It is illustrated by Remi Bryant and was published by PlayPen Publishing in 2022 (available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other major retailers). Kirkus Reviews calls School Belongs to Me:

An engaging, informative, multigenerational tale underscoring the legacy of the Rosenwald School program.

The book is a story about Tommy, a boy who visits his grandmother in North Carolina. Together, they go to the Rosenwald school she attended, which (like the Canetuck Rosenwald School) has become a community center. They attend a meeting to prepare to celebrate the school’s 100th anniversary. In the story, Tommy learns about common experiences that students had at Rosenwald Schools.

School Belongs to Me is based on the story of the Canetuck Rosenwald School, which celebrated its centennial in the Fall of 2022,” said Stack, who has a B.A. from St. John’s College and an Ed.M. from Harvard. Stack is known for documentaries on Rosenwald Schools and sharecropping, including Under the Kudzu (available on Amazon Prime VIdeo), which traces the history of Canetuck Rosenwald School and Pender County Training School. Stack's award-winning documentaries have screened at the National Trust for Historic Preservation Rosenwald School conferences, the National Council for Black Studies conference, many film festivals, universities, and other venues.

At the Pender Arts Council’s Swamp Soiree Gala, Gary Trawick will sign his book, Born in Reconstruction: The Story of Pender County. Trawick is a retired superior court judge who has traveled to all 100 county courthouses in his career.

“These events will spotlight our local history in a fun and informative format,” said Proctor. “Mark your calendars now and meet the authors.”

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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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