Emphasis on Education From Segregation to Integration in Wilson, NC

An Exhibit of the Freeman Round House & African American Museum

Long forbidden to read or write, formerly enslaved people thirsted to educate themselves and their children. Though a Freedmen's Bureau school operated briefly in 1867, little is known about the earliest African-American schools in Wilson. By about 1870, however, the Wilson Academy had begun to train the first generation of black students to enter college, including educator/businessman Samuel H. Vick, educator/real estate developer Daniel C. Suggs, music teacher Serena Suggs Moore, and educator/lawyer Simeon A. Smith. As a private school, however, the Academy was out of reach of most African-American families.

First Public Schools in Wilson

In 1883, the North Carolina legislature established separate graded schools for black and white students in Wilson. The school for African-Americans taught children through grades seven or eight, at which time children who wanted further education had to leave home to attend high school in another city or in the preparatory divisions of African-American colleges such as Howard, Lincoln, Shaw and Livingstone. The Colored Graded School was Wilson's sole black public school well into the twentieth century. Built on the southern edge of town, on what is now Pender Street near Black Creek Road, the school's site is still known by many as "The Schoolyard" though the building was torn down in the 1950s.

Photo: E. Courtney Fitts' first grade class, circa 1933 at the Colored Graded School. Photo courtesy Lisa Y. Henderson.

In 1891, Saint Mark's Episcopal Church established a parochial school at Lodge and South Streets that operated for at least 30 years. Later church-supported schools included a Seventh-Day Adventist school that opened as early as the 1920s and Saint Alphonsus School, a Catholic School that opened in 1943.

Saint Alphonsus Catholic School, c. 1940s. Reprinted in Wilson Daily Times, 29 April 1999.

Wilson Colored High School

With the encouragement of Booker T. Washington, Sears Roebuck magnate Julius Rosenwald established the Rosenwald Fund, which funded the building of hundreds of schools for African-Americans in the segregated South. More than a dozen Rosenwald Schools were erected in Wilson County, but only one school in the city benefited from the fund's generosity - Wilson Colored High School. In the fall of 1923, the school opened on north Carroll Street near Green Street to educate children in grades four through ten. Eleventh and twelfth grades were added in later years. In 1933, students selected their beloved mascot, the Trojan, and school colors, blue and white. In 1937, the school's name was changed to honor a prominent local businessman, Charles H. Darden. Edward M. Barnes served as principal of Darden for most of its existence as a high school.

Charles Henry Darden. Photo courtesy of Wilson County Public Library.

Image courtesy of Wilson County Public Library.

Darden High Trojans Football Team
Darden High School Basketball Schedule, 1967-68, sign on exhibit at the Freeman Round House Museum.

School Boycott

On an April day in 1918, African-American teacher Mary C. Euell was summoned to the office of white Wilson school superintendent Charles L. Coon. Euell had been accused of being insubordinate to her principal, J.D. Reid, who was also African-American. When Euell insisted on defending herself against Reid's accusations, Coon slapped her in the face.

New York Age, 18 May 1918.

In protest Euell and ten fellow teachers resigned en masse. Mary Euell pressed charges against Coon. Before a magistrate, Euell's lawyer declared that Euell had filed charges in order to make sure that the public was made aware of what had happened and to assert her rights to protection under the laws of the State of North Carolina. After Euell contacted civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois, black newspapers publicized the story nationwide. Ultimately, Coon pled guilty to simple assault and was fined one penny, plus costs.

Wilmington Dispatch, 23 April 1918.

The damage was done, however. Following the teachers' lead, black parents pulled hundreds of their children out of the Colored Graded School and established a private alternative school known as the Independent School, or the Colored Training School. Financed with 25 cent-a-week tuition payments and elaborate student musical performances, the Independent School operated for nearly ten years in a building in the 600 block of East Vance Street.

New York Age, 23 November 1918.

The Colored Graded School boycott, sparked by African-American women, was an astonishing act of prolonged resistance that unified Wilson's black toilers and strivers in the era of Jim Crow. Read more about the boycott on Black Wide-Awake.

Hattie Henderson Ricks, who was 7 years old in the spring of 1918 recalled:

First of the year I went to school, and [then] I didn't go back no more to the Graded School. They opened the Wilson Training School on Vance Street, with that old long stairway up that old building down there - and well, I went over there.

In 1937, the Colored Graded School (elementary) was renamed to honor a revered teacher, Sallie M. Barbour. Shortly after, a second elementary school named for Samuel H. Vick opened on North Reid Street, just a few blocks from Darden. It was folowed in the late 1940s by Elvie Street School, which replaced the outdated Sallie Barbour School.

The Wilson Daily Times printed this photo of Addie Davis Butterfield‘s 1945 first grade class at Samuel H. Vick Elementary. Mrs. Butterfield is top right, and the children include her nephew William Bayard Davis Jr. (front row in white shirt and tie), Rudolph Kersey Bullock (laughing beside Davis), Jessie Gertrude Baldwin Pouncey, Patricia Ann Tabron Bates, Alton Ray Kirk, Robert Eugene Dew, Earline Blount, Callie Joyce Bowens, Sarah Frances Greene, Reuben Hammonds, Luther Mincey and Raymond Bell. The caption attributes the photo to the collection of Diane Davis Myers, Butterfield’s niece.
Elvie Street School, Image courtesy of Wilson County Public Library.

Left: Sallie Barbour School. Image courtesy Wilson County Public Library.

Rural Education

Meanwhile, spurred by a legal battle waged by farmer Mark Sharpe, Wilson County began to upgrade its elementary schools and build high schools for rural African-American children, including Speight High School.

William Sutton, Speight High School Varsity Coach, 1962-1967

Bill Myers, director of the Freeman Round House Museum, was a teacher and school administrator in the Elm City school system. He taught during segregation, integration and beyond. He shares some of his experiences in the oral history excerpt below, part of the Crossing the Tracks oral history project.

Brown vs. Board of Education

The Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, was met with indifference by school officials in Wilson. In fact, the city's last "colored only" elementary schools - Adams Elementary and B.O. Barnes Elementary - were constructed years after Brown was decided. Through "freedom of choice" plans and other dodges, Wilson's schools passed through the decade of the 1960s essentially segregated. Only when faced with a devastating loss of federal funding did Wilson's school board implement a plan for compliance, resulting in full desegregation in the fall of 1970.

Image: "But under the freedom of choice plans in the fall of 1965, less than 1 percent of students transferred from black to white schools." This article, "Integrating schools came down to doing it or else," on display at the Freeman Round House Museum, details the process of desegregation in Wilson County.

In the above video, Gloria Freeman shares her memories of school integration in Wilson.

Integration Onwards

School integration was not without a bittersweet aspect, as it resulted in the immediate downgrade of East Wilson's cherished Darden from a high school to tenth-grade only for a few years and then closure. A middle school called Darden-Vick oeprated for several years at the Carroll Street site until a brand-new Darden Middle School opened in 2003 on Lipscomb Road. Sam Vick Elementary occupies the much-modified original location of Darden High, and the former Vick school building, like Elvie Street and Adams Schools, has been repurposed.

Darden High School Faculty, 1937-1938.

Charles H. Darden Middle School. Image courtesy Wilson County Schools.

The greatest achievement for African-Americans in Wilson County has been the phenomenal advancement in education.

Congressman G.K. Butterfield, Jr.

Congressman G.K. Butterfield discusses the history of segregated education in Wilson and the impact of Booker T. Washington's 1910 visit to Wilson as well as the Rosenwald Schools in the above excerpt from the Crossing the Tracks oral history project.

Explore the below exhibits to find out more about Wilson's African American history.

There is more to see at the Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House and African American Museum. Learn more about the Museum and plan your visit at http://www.theroundhousemuseum.com/.


All images and artifacts are in the collection of the Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House and African American Museum unless otherwise noted. These exhibits are virtual versions of physical exhibits located at the Freeman Round House & Museum in Wilson, NC. They were originally curated by Lisa Y. Henderson of Black Wide-Awake. They have been adapted as virtual exhibits by Beth Nevarez Historical Consulting.