So I just stopped school.

This chart is simultaneously heart-breaking and awe-inspiring.

Three thousand African-American children in Wilson County were enrolled in eight grades during the 1923-1924 school year. They ranged from six to twenty years of age. The 1689 first graders ranged from six to seventeen years old, and nearly two-thirds were classified as “over age.” There were three nineteen year-old second graders, and a full fifth of all third graders were thirteen years old. One was twenty. Only 17 of 269 fourth graders were age-appropriate. The eighth grade class — the highest grade offered to black children — tallied a single pupil.

Why? Pick a reason. Or several, as years passed. “Mama is sick.” “I am sick.” “I need to mind the baby.” “I don’t have school clothes.” “I can’t see the board, and my daddy can’t get me no glasses.” “It’s too far to walk.” “I missed too much time last year.” “I got to work.” “I’m too old.”

My grandmother‘s schooling was repeatedly interrupted. Two life-threatening bouts with pneumonia. Temporary moves to new towns as her guardian great-aunt sought work with better pay than Wilson offered black women. A great-uncle with dementia who’d begun to wander from home and needed to be watched. She left school for good when she was about 13, just before the school year captured in this chart.

“The first day I went down to Graded School, that day it rained. I come back – there was a hole in my shoe, and I slopped in all the water and got my feet wet. That’s what Mama said, anyhow, and I taken with a fever. And I was sick that whole rest of the year. I mean, wasn’t strong enough to go down to Graded School – she wouldn’t let me go down there. So I stayed home, and Mama put all them old rags … that old flannel cloth, and she’d put it in red onions and hog lard.”

“[F]irst of the year I went to school, and [then I got sick and] 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, well, I went over there. Then when Mama … went to Greensboro, then I went to Greensboro to Ashe Street School. Then we moved from over Ashe Street over to Washington Street, over there, then I went to Washington Street School. So then I went over there. And so we come on back [to Wilson], and then they wanted to put me back in the same grade I was in before I left, and I cried. I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to go back to that school anymore. So I just stopped school.”

Imagine teenagers crammed into desks alongside seven year-olds, sounding out words in blue-back spellers, carefully practicing the shapes of letters, and ticking off numbers on their fingers. The perseverance of these children and their families, the determination to get an education, is palpable.

Imagine also the children who fell from the ranks each year, who were bright and eager and wanted just as badly to learn, but whose obstacles won the day. In 1924, only one black child who had started the race finished the course.

——

For statistics from 1913-1914, see here.

Wilson City colored schools educated 1225 children in eleven grades in 1923-1924. Almost 28% were normal age for their grades, a slight improvement over the county schools. The oldest child attending city schools was a 20 year-old eighth grader.

Chart from Coon, Charles L., The Public Schools of Wilson County North Carolina: Ten Years 1913-1914 to 1923-1924, published by Board of Education of Wilson County;   interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.

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