Updated: Feb 19, 2021
The Tobacco Farm Life Museum is celebrating Black History Month in February through a series of blog posts focusing on the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans to agriculture, science, and education.
The first public schools in North Carolina did not exist until the 1840s when so-called “common” schools were built in many counties. These schools varied greatly in terms of how many months per year they operated and in terms of quality of education and curriculum. However, even this inconsistent public education was only available to white schoolchildren. It was illegal to teach enslaved or even free black people to read or write. It is estimated that about 10% of free and enslaved African Americans could read, having either taught themselves or having been taught in secret by someone else. This was in sharp contrast to the fact that over 80% of white adults could read.
In 1864, the common school system was updated by the General Assembly to a public system of graded schools. However, funding was difficult in the years following the Civil War, which ended in 1865. For African Americans, the Civil War brought the end to slavery, and many formerly enslaved individuals were eager to finally get an education. The Freedmen’s Bureau, established by the federal government to aid recently freed people in transitioning to life after slavery, created Freedmen’s schools throughout the South, often in partnership with charity groups such as the American Missionary Association, an abolitionist organization based in New York. The Freedmen’s Bureau and groups like the American Missionary Association provided funding to train and pay teachers, build schools, and manage them. At least one Freedmen’s School was built in Smithfield, NC in Johnston County.
The Johnston County Heritage Commission historical marker at the site of the Freedmen's School in Smithfield, NC.
The Freedmen’s Bureau closed in 1872 when Congress failed to renew its funding.
By the end of the 1800s all North Carolina counties had a system of public graded schools; however, they remained segregated along racial lines, with black public schools, especially in rural areas, more underfunded than white schools.
In the early 1900s, rural North Carolina communities built separate schools for black children and white children and education for African Americans was particularly lacking. Booker T. Washington was a leading voice in the Black community at that time. He advocated for education and economic advancement as keys to improving life for African Americans. He particularly promoted agricultural and industrial education in order to train black people for the main trades and roles needed in the South. Washington founded Tuskegee Institute for that purpose, to provide higher education to African Americans and educate and train teachers of trades that could then go to schools across the South and educate other African Americans.
Julius Rosenwald was the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company and a philanthropist.
Julius Rosenwald was inspired by Booker T. Washington to help aid in the improvement of educational opportunities for Black children in the South. Rosenwald was the president of Sears, Roebuck & Company. Washington brought to his attention the inequalities in education for Black children in the South. Washington wrote that the schools “are as bad as stables.” The majority of Black people in the south had little chance at getting a quality education. While white schools often had one teacher for every thirty students, on average, black schools had one teacher for more than 200 students. Public spending on white students averaged $14 per student while public funding for black schools averaged only 20 cents per child.
Rosenwald used his wealth to build what came to be called Rosenwald Schools across the south. Using a strategy of matching funds, Rosenwald schools were built with community-raised funds combined with funds from the Rosenwald Foundation. The first school was built in 1913 and over the next two decades ultimately over 5,300 schools were built. North Carolina was the state with the largest number of Rosenwald Schools, having over 800 schools built with money from the Rosenwald Fund. These schools enabled more Black children to get a quality education. The planning, design, and curriculum for the schools was heavily influenced by the Tuskegee Institute’s model and focused on industrial and agricultural trades. Rosenwald Schools helped fill the gap in public education offerings between white and black students.
Princeton Graded School, a Rosenwald School in Johnston County that is still standing today.
There were several Rosenwald Schools in Wilson and Johnston counties and at least one still stands in Johnston County, Princeton Graded School.
Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Palmer Institute & Private Education
While Julius Rosenwald’s contributions to African American education were much needed and appreciated, African Americans in North Carolina contributed themselves to raise the matching funds necessary to build Rosenwald Schools. African American communities worked tirelessly to improve educational offerings as much as they could, and many individual African Americans also sought out additional educational opportunities beyond the limitations of public education.
Charlotte Hawkins Brown was a leader in education in North Carolina in the early to mid-1900s. Brown was born in North Carolina but raised and educated in Massachusetts. She returned to North Carolina in 1901 to teach at a school funded by the American Missionary Association. When the school was forced to close due to lack of resources, Brown started her own private boarding school for African Americans.
She named the school the Palmer Memorial Institute, in honor of Alice Freeman Palmer, who had supported Brown’s own education. The school was both a day and boarding school for African Americans. Brown took steps to ensure the school was a safe haven for black youths by making the school’s board of trustees entirely African American. The school was successful for decades, attracting students from across the country, and it was one of the only schools in North Carolina to offer college preparatory programs.
The people mentioned above are but a few of many, many people who dedicated their lives to education. Generations of teachers and students in segregated schools worked to improve educational offerings for black students, knowing that quality education is so valuable for community growth, economic stability, and society as a whole. Learn more about African American educational history using the resources below.
The Tobacco Farm Life Museum recently installed an exhibit about the history of rural and agricultural education in North Carolina at the Public Library of Johnston County and Smithfield in downtown Smithfield, NC. Check it out when the library reopens to the public.
Norman Finkelstein, Schools of Hope: How Julius Rosenwald Helped Change African American Education, (Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Calkins Creek), 2014.
Websites about the Rosenwald Foundation
North Carolina Rosenwald Schools
Virtual Exhibit from the Freeman Round House Museum about African American Education in Wilson, NC
The Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum, a state historic site