One commonly held narrative says that the integration of Southern schools occurred in the 1960s. However, the changes at that time were neither unprecedented, nor sudden. Since the 19th century, educators in the South have worked toward equality, and their efforts laid the groundwork for modern changes that have reached beyond the 1960s. Here, we read about one teacher-turned-writer who has devoted herself to exploring and documenting efforts at improving educational opportunities for all Southern children.
School Tales Propel a Career Change
by Betty Jamerson Reed
Grieving that my days as a classroom educator had ended, in the fall of 1999, I volunteered to teach a basic education class at the Ranger Station in Pisgah National Forest while its regular instructor was traveling. Little did I know that my meeting with those students − five men, two black and three white − would lead me to launch my own writing career.
Typical of learners wanting time off, those reluctant students assured me, “This is not a day to do real lessons. After all, you’re only the substitute.”
Although I had no lesson plan whatsoever, I refused to comply with their wishes. Insisting that any day was a good day to learn, I said, “We’ll work on oral communication. Think about your school days.” Questions rushed through my mind as I threw out query after query: How did you learn to read? Who were your favorite teachers? Why? What did you do during recess? Were you punished for misbehaving? How? Were you ever treated unfairly?
One by one, the men began to talk about their school memories, occasionally chuckling over their escapades in playing hooky or getting sent to the “cloakroom” as punishment for some mischief, when in fact, that had been their plan all along. But words of appreciation for teachers and classmates accented their memories of misbehavior.
Before long, I was scribbling notes on a sheet of paper and asking still more questions. Each memory they shared interested me. Then I became angry and confused when the two elderly black gentlemen told me that, in the past, their six-year-olds had to board a bus early in the morning and travel to another county to attend school. Outraged at the idea that no local schools existed for them at that time, I rattled off question after question until the men grew impatient with me and said, “You need to talk to the principal, Mrs. Ethel Mills. She can tell you. She’s about 90 years old.”
I followed their advice and telephoned Mrs. Mills, but another person answered, telling me to “hold on.” Instantly, the image of an elderly lady, bedridden and in poor health, crossed my mind, but a few minutes later, a firm voice greeted me: “This is Ethel Mills.” A day later, I stepped onto her front porch, knocked on the door, and was invited into her living room, where I learned she was not 90, but 98 years old. She spoke with an unfaltering mind and much wisdom. She explained that, until 1965, black children who finished the eighth grade had to travel away to enroll in the upper grades. Until that time, the youngsters attended classes at the Brevard Rosenwald School.
The school’s name triggered a memory. For decades, before automatic deposits became available, I received my salary through the mail in an envelope with 225 Rosenwald Lane as the return address. The name Rosenwald had stirred my curiosity—why would a local street bear that name? Mrs. Mills explained that a rich “Jew” named Rosenwald donated seed money to promote building better schools for black communities. I decided to learn more about the gentleman.
In the late 1990s, googling his name brought only a few hits, but those sources provided new facts which increased my growing interest in Julius Rosenwald. I was “hooked” and, neglecting other responsibilities, devoted my time and my automobile to search out facts about the Sears-Roebuck executive and his philanthropy. Those were exciting days as I grew familiar with the man, his early life, his numerous accomplishments, and his friendship with Booker T. Washington. Then, in 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Rosenwald Schools on its list of endangered historic places. That designation made learning about the philanthropist and his activities far easier.
A local member of the Brevard (North Carolina) City Council, Rodney Locks, shared his interest in Rosenwald’s life and accomplishments with me. Locks had persuaded the council to name the city’s black residential area in honor of the philanthropist and used that title in an application for a block grant, which was granted in 2001 to improve the newly named Rosenwald Community. Its residents have become aware of their school history and take pride in the Rosenwald name.
My interest mushroomed as I interviewed former students who had attended the local black school, including a number who were enrolled there long before any Rosenwald funds were allocated to improve the structure. I also spoke with numerous men and women who had studied in the rock building that replaced their schoolhouse, which was destroyed by fire in 1941.
Hearing their stories poured their past into my present. I learned that, before schools integrated, local access to education ended for each black student after the seventh or eighth grade. Then, due to a 1951 agreement with the Board of Education in nearby Hendersonville, students could travel over a winding mountain road to attend high school in another county. Living in one county and attending school in another created problems. For example, if students took part in athletics, the after-school practice required that parents drive to the next county to pick up their sons or daughters. If students became ill during the school day, it was no easy matter for a Brevard resident to drive over to pick them up. And on the Hendersonville campus, territorial rights led to occasional resentment on the part of local students, who preferred that their space, teachers, and materials not be shared with outsiders.
Other Brevard students moved away from home in order to continue their education. For example, educator and author Nathaniel Hall, moved to Washington, DC. Cornelius Hunt, who would become the first black member of the Brevard City Council, attended Central High School in Louisville, Kentucky. A few parents managed to enroll their children in Lincoln Academy near Kings Mountain or at the prestigious Allen School in Asheville.
Unwilling to halt my research, I prepared a case study of the school that was published in 2004 as The Brevard Rosenwald School. My investigation brought to light facts about other schools, facts that needed to be shared. For example, in Yancey County, North Carolina, in the 1950s first graders boarded a bus long before sunrise and traveled miles over a rugged mountain road to attend school in Asheville. Little ones often fell asleep along the way and frequently needed to use a bathroom. During the winter months, parents wrapped their children in blankets to ward off the cold in the unheated bus. After talking to more than one hundred former teachers, parents, and students of Western North Carolina’s black schools and after experiencing shock after shock at the treatment of black learners by local school boards, I completed another book: School Segregation in Western North Carolina: A History, 1860s–1970s, which was published in 2011.
Pondering a more than decades-long crusade for literacy, justice, and civil rights that took place in my own backyard, I turned my writing to reintroducing three educational crusaders to the public with the hope that today’s adults would appreciate efforts that led to school equality and affirmed civil rights in the 1970s and after. Believing that the past contains important lessons that should not be ignored, I continued to write in the 21st century to expose today’s readers to quiet battles for better learning conditions for all.
In previous centuries, these three unsung heroines struggled to create schools for the underprivileged, and their successes opened the way for modern youth to lead better lives after completing their education. Sophia Sawyer was an outspoken missionary to the Cherokees who elevated the education of girls to a level equal to that of their brothers. Despite being threatened by the State of Georgia with fines and imprisonment, she persisted in working for equality in education. Later, Emily Prudden began her career after the age of fifty and, despite being physically challenged, built fifteen schools for white and black youngsters in need. Today, her work continues in North Carolina at Pfeiffer University, Toccoa Falls College, and through the mission of South Mountain Children and Family Services. The third, Martha Berry, was born into a prominent Georgia family and denied enrollment in her schools to any child whose parents could afford to pay. She elevated the dignity of physical labor by requiring students to earn their way. Although Martha herself had little formal education, she provided a path to college for thousands of needy students. Today, Berry College has earned a reputation as one of the best private colleges in Georgia.
People should know that educators in the South have waged war against ignorance, bias, superstition, and even dirt. As single women without the right to vote, Sawyer, Prudden, and Berry (who did live long enough to vote for Hoover) had to go it alone, but along with others, they paved the way for women to break the barriers for their sex in academia, in politics, in all the professions, as well as in the labor force once reserved for men.
Teachers in segregated schools encouraged students to provide a sound education for their children as they embarked on their studies in integrated schools, and many focused on doing just that. After full integration in the early to mid-1970s white and black, as well as Asian and Latino, students had the benefits of better-equipped schools, since dual expenditures for education were no longer legal. Often, members of all races in Generation X took advantage of the opportunity to attend college, thus boosting their ability to earn higher salaries in the professions and especially in technology. From the 1980s until the opening of the 21st century, young people have embarked on a seemingly unencumbered path to learning due to the past efforts of educators and their supporters— and despite the hardships of earlier generations.
Changes in education continue to fascinate me even now, more than two decades after my experience in the forest as a substitute teacher. Those men at the Ranger Station, especially Samuel O. Howell, Jr. and James E. Gardin, Sr., who sent me to pursue my quest with Ethel Mills, unknowingly launched my pursuit to document the history of schools and the impact of learning on children, adolescents, and adults before and since the fulfillment of total integration. Moving from disappointment over the demise of a career to exultation inspired by achievements anchored in the past and opportunities realized since then, I continue to pursue the success stories of learners and their teachers.
Betty Jamerson Reed is a graduate of Bryan College and holds advanced degrees from Western Carolina University. She and her husband William live on a farm in Western North Carolina. Her essays and poetry have appeared in various newspapers, journals, and anthologies. Her books, The Brevard Rosenwald School (2004), School Segregation in Western North Carolina (2011), and Soldiers in Petticoats (2019), are based on her research about the history of education in the Southern Appalachians.