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.
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.
Image courtesy of Wilson County Public Library.
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 It was folowed in the late 1940s by Elvie Street School, which replaced the outdated Sallie Barbour School.
Left: Sallie Barbour School. Image courtesy Wilson County Public Library.
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.
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.
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.