By time illustrations were made for the 1930 Sanborn fire insurance maps of Wilson, the two-story Normal and Industrial Institute had reverted to use as an apartment building, marked as “flats” at 604 East Vance Street. The tall staircase my grandmother Hattie Henderson Ricks recalled is clearly marked on its front facade. She was 8 years old when the school opened in late 1918: “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 — well, I went over there.”
I spent a delightful hour or so yesterday speaking with students at Greenfield School about revolutionary African-American teacher Mary C. Euell and the Wilson Colored Graded School boycott. I appreciate the opportunity to share community history and stories of resistance with young people, and I thank Jennifer Johnson, Greenfield’s librarian, for the invitation.
Greenfield opened in the fall of 1970, the same semester I started first grade. That’s not a coincidence. After 16 years of stonewalling post-Brown v. Board of Education, Wilson finally fully integrated its school system in 1970, more or less at gunpoint. Some in the city’s monied class had seen the handwriting on the wall, and Greenfield was just one of many seg academies that sprang up across the South.
Fifty-two years is a long time, but no guarantor of change for the better. Greenfield, however, has moved along the arc of the moral universe, and the faces of the teenagers who listened so attentively and asked such thoughtful questions reflect its progress.
Last week’s Zoom talk about Mary C. Euell and the Wilson Normal and Industrial Institute may be one of my most enjoyable to date. I never tire of sharing Mary Euell’s story, and this occasion was made extra-memorable by the presence in the audience of descendants or relatives of sisters S. Roberta and Grace Battle, who were two of teachers who resigned with Euell; of Samuel H. Vick, who spearheaded the establishment of the alternative school; and of Sarah Hines, another resigning teacher, and her husband Walter S. Hines, a businessman who served on the Industrial School’s board. After my presentation, there was a freewheeling question-and-answer session that touched on a broad range of East Wilson matters and ended only because the library staff had to go on home.
My thanks, as always, to Wilson County Public Library, for its support of local history and commitment to amplifying the stories of Wilson’s African-American community. (See this month’s exhibit near the circulation desk prepared by Adult Services Librarian Naija Speight.) Special thanks to Local History and Genealogy Librarian Tammy Medlin and Assistant Director/Adult Services Manager Amanda Gardner.
My thanks to Wilson County Historical Association, Wilson County Tourism Development Authority, Drew C. Wilson of Wilson Times (where you can read the accompanying article), Reginald Speight of Congressman G.K. Butterfield Jr.‘s office, and local elected officials and members of the public who took time to show interest and support.
The Wilson Normal & Industrial Institute was one of four sites commemorated by historical markers placed by Wilson County Historical Association in 2020. For more about the incident that led to school’s establishment, see here.
Today marks the 103rd anniversary of the resignation of 11 African-American teachers in Wilson, North Carolina, in rebuke of their “high-handed” black principal and the white school superintendent who slapped one of them. In their wake, black parents pulled their children out of the public school en masse and established a private alternative in a building owned by a prominent black businessman. Financed with 25¢-a-week tuition payments and elaborate student musical performances, the Independent School operated for nearly ten years. The school boycott, sparked by African-American women standing at the very intersection of perceived powerless in the Jim Crow South, was an astonishing act of prolonged resistance that unified Wilson’s black toilers and strivers.
The school boycott is largely forgotten in Wilson, and its heroes go unsung. In their honor, today, and every April 9, I publish links to these Black Wide-Awake posts chronicling the walk-out and its aftermath. Please read and share and speak the names of Mary C. Euell and the revolutionary teachers of the Colored Graded School.
“The Staff of Wilson Graded School c. 1918. Ms. Uzell, the teacher whom the Superintendent slapped. Back Row: 3rd from right.” [The teacher’s name, in fact, was Euell.]
Second, a group photograph of students standing in front of the familiar bay windows and entry door of the Colored Graded School on Stantonsburg Street. The school’s highest grade level was eighth, and this may have been a group of graduating students.
“Our only public school was emptied of all the students” “The Colored Graded School”
Third, and most astonishingly, a photograph of the two-story building that housed Wilson Normal and Industrial School, also known as the Independent School, its lawn and balconies brimming with students and, it appears, parents.
“The Independent School was housed in one of Mr. Sam Vick’s houses on E. Vance Street.”
I am trying to track down the originals of these photographs to share with you. As I have testified repeatedly, the school boycott and creation of the W.N.I.A. were the most revolutionary collective strikes against white supremacy (and, to use a thoroughly modern term: misogynoir) in the history of Wilson County.
In the meantime, here’s W.N.I.A. on East Vance Street in the 1922 Sanborn map of Wilson. The shotgun (endway) house at 602 is clearly visible above.
The school building was still standing in 1964, as shown in this close-up of an aerial image of part of Wilson.
However, by time the city was next photographed in 1971, the Independent School building had been demolished.
This apartment building occupies the site today.
Aerial photos courtesy of Wilson County Technology Services Department; photo of 604-606 East Vance Street by Lisa Y. Henderson, June 2020.