Open in App
Claudia Stack

Booker T. Washington's Legacy in Wilmington, NC


Booker T. Washington, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front. [Between 1880 and 1890] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

In the fall of 1910, famed educator and president of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington, made a series of speeches in North Carolina. On November 3, 1910, he spoke at the Academy of Music in Wilmington (Reaves, Strength through Struggle p. 48). A large crowd of both races attended his speech, in which he said:

The Negro is here, and is here to stay. We are to live in the South together, black and white, and it is sometimes helpful for us to speak directly and frankly to each other... [we must] do everything that will promote good will and friendship rather than enmity and discord.

Underneath this cordial appeal, Washington had a steely determination to further African American education and enterprise. Although criticized by some for accepting segregation, it’s important to realize that Washington earned the nickname “The Wizard of Tuskegee” for a reason.

Operating in the hostile climate of Alabama, where more than 300 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950, Washington couldn’t advocate for social equality between the races and stay alive. As it was, he received death threats on a regular basis for doing things such as dining with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901.

Washington was continuously playing a game of strategy with his own life at stake. He pushed the limits of what was acceptable advocacy for African American education. I think he did so because he believed in the wisdom of the sentiment of this quote attributed to abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Literacy opens a door in the mind that, once opened, cannot be closed.

Accompanying Washington on his 1910 North Carolina speaking tour were some of the state’s leading African American men: Charles Clinton Spaulding (Manager of and later president of NC Mutual Insurance Company), James Benson Dudley (President of NC A&T), George Clinton Clement (A.M.E. Zion Bishop) and Robert R. Taylor (Architect and Tuskegee faculty member).

However well received Washington was in Wilmington in 1910, his greatest impact on New Hanover County generally would not be felt for several more years. That came with the advent of the Rosenwald school building program, begun in 1912 near Tuskegee under the guidance of Washington and his assistant Clinton J. Calloway, using money donated by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.

The Rosenwald School building effort, structured as a matching grant program, began with a $25,000 gift Julius Rosenwald made in 1912 to Tuskegee in support of teacher training. At the behest of Booker T. Washington and Clinton J. Calloway, Rosenwald allowed $2800 of that money to be used in a pilot program to help communities build small rural schools. From 1912, when the first six Rosenwald Schools were built in Alabama, to 1932, when the Rosenwald Fund ceased funding schools, the program helped to construct over 5,000 buildings for education across the South: 4,977 schools, 163 shops, and 217 boarding houses for teachers (see Hoffschwelle, The Rosenwald Schools of the American South, 2006).

Many articles about the Rosenwald schools highlight the generosity of Julius Rosenwald but downplay or even omit mention of untold millions of African Americans who donated. Out of his fortune, Rosenwald donated $4.3 million for southern African American schools between 1912 and 1932. The Rosenwald Fund also provided modern plans free of charge to districts, raising the standards for school building for all children. There is not doubt that Rosenwald’s vision and generosity galvanized school building. At the same time, out of their relative poverty, African Americans donated $4.7 million for Rosenwald schools, over and above the taxes they paid. They also often frequently donated materials, labor, and land. This sacrifice is almost beyond imagining.

The first Rosenwald school built in North Carolina was the Warren Grove School in Chowan County, completed in 1915. At that time, the Rosenwald school building program was administered by Tuskegee Institute, and schools built between 1915 and 1920 are usually designated as “Built under Tuskegee” in the Fisk University Rosenwald School Database. In 1920, the program’s administration was moved to Nashville.

In New Hanover County, communities raised funds and built Rosenwald schools soon after the Rosenwald school program was extended to North Carolina. During the period of Tuskegee administration (1915 to 1920), New Hanover County families organized and raised funds to build six one and two teacher schools. Those early schools -- called East Wilmington, Masonboro, Middle Sound, Oak Hill, Scott’s Hill and South Wilmington-- were in the more rural areas of the county.

For these six schools, African American residents paid their taxes, then contributed an additional $2,525 (equivalent to $51,601 in value today). Part of the Rosenwald Fund’s requirement to release their matching portion (usually up to 20-25% of the school’s cost) was that school boards commit to finishing the school and running it as part of the public school system.

If the experiences of communities in New Hanover County are anything like those in nearby Pender County, where I filmed the documentaries Under the Kudzu and Carrie Mae: An American Life (both available on Amazon Prime Video), African American families often put teachers up in their homes. For decades, they also continued to donate funds and materials for basic school needs.

As the Rosenwald Fund’s school building effort evolved through the 1920s, there was a change in emphasis. The focus shifted from aiding small rural schools, to providing larger, more centralized schools in urban areas. As part of the 1930-31 Rosenwald school budget, two rooms were added to the East Wilmington School.

The same year (1931), New Hanover County Schools received Rosenwald Fund support for a new building for Williston Industrial School. As many in Wilmington know, Williston as an institution has a storied past that begins in 1865. It was originally organized by the Freedman’s Bureau, and then operated until 1873 by the American Missionary Association (AMA). The school was named for Samuel Williston “a northern philanthropist who gave considerable amounts of money to the AMA for educating southern black children.” (Reaves, Strength through Struggle, pp 152)

Williston was taken over by the city in 1873, and became a public school. Over the years it was located in different buildings. Principal David Clarke Virgo introduced higher grades, and Williston was accredited as a high school in 1923. The school built a reputation for academic excellence.

The 1931 Williston building, partially funded by a $6,000 contribution from the Rosenwald Fund, was an impressive school built to accommodate 20 teachers. It was a stately brick building with tall white columns and a sweeping staircase to the front entrance. Sadly, it burned in 1936. However, it was rebuilt on a very similar plan, and that building still stands on 10th street in Wilmington, although now in use by the Gregory school (another historic African American school). (Reaves, Strength through Struggle, pp 159)

The Rosenwald support for Williston reflects the fact that by 1930, the Rosenwald Fund was focusing on larger, urban high schools that could offer vocational classes. However, this does not mean that Williston, or any other North Carolina historic African American high school, used a curriculum that was primarily vocational.

Due to the fact that many African American high schools were called “training schools” (which actually originally just designated a school for teacher training- see Redclay, County Training Schools and Public Secondary Education for Negroes in the South), and based on their vocational course offerings, many people mistakenly believe that the curriculum in North Carolina’s historic African American schools differed substantially from the curriculum in European American schools. However, three important counterpoints show the error of this belief.

  1. North Carolina’s historic African American schools were NOT structured around a vocational curriculum. The vocational courses were electives, while the core curriculum was based on the liberal arts and suitable for college preparation. The issue of whether the European American and African American schools in North Carolina would follow the same curriculum was settled in 1924 by the founding Director of the Division of Negro Education, Nathan Carter Newbold. He stated then that “the State Department of Public Instruction takes the position that the courses of study in Negro high schools should be identical with those for the whites.” (Thuesen, Greater than Equal, p. 59)
  2. The 1917 Smith-Hughes Act sent federal funds to the states for secondary vocational education, and alumni of the historically European American high schools in Wilmington can attest to courses that were available there in various areas such as masonry and auto mechanics. African American students in North Carolina were actually shortchanged of their share of vocational funds. A 1937 state report documented that although African American students made up 29% of the NC student population, they received just 10-15% of vocational funding. (Thuesen, Greater than Equal, p. 76).
  3. While all Rosenwald elementary school plans had a designated “industrial room,” in North Carolina that space was usually quickly taken over for other uses, such as more academic classroom space, or for food preparation. North Carolina did not allocate funds or develop a curriculum for vocational/industrial education at the primary level. Out of hundreds of interviews with Rosenwald school alumni, I have only met one person who recalls any kind of handiwork done in a Rosenwald primary school, and that was a brief time of weaving baskets. That experience probably stemmed more from the teacher’s interest in that area than any wide scale initiative.

Like alumni of Pender County Training School I have interviewed, Williston alumni recall taking French, Algebra, History, and other liberal arts courses, in addition to vocational courses they may have taken. This is in no way meant to demean vocational education, but simply to try to correct an inaccurate perception of Williston and other historic African American high schools in North Carolina.

During the 1920s, the high school dropout rate was high in North Carolina for both races. This was due to the fact that young people often had to work to help support their families. However, of those who were able to complete high school at Williston, many went to college and/or pursued careers in business, the military, education, and government.

It would be impossible to overstate the impact that Booker T. Washington had on New Hanover County through the Rosenwald school program. Washington inspired Rosenwald to contribute to schools that had a profound impact both locally and across the South. However, it was the striving and sacrifice of African American families that created the schools, just as they had created independent schools, parochial schools, and colleges prior to the Rosenwald Fund. (See Schools Built by African Americans Changed the South.)

Ultimately, segregated school systems are ethically indefensible and fiscally unwise. However, in examining Washington’s legacy in Wilmington, the dichotomy of vocational vs. liberal arts education seems less important than the way he helped African American communities obtain decent school buildings for their children.

As Washington said in a 1896 address in Brooklyn, NY, sixteen years before the start of the Rosenwald School program:

There are a few things of which I feel certain that furnish a basis for thought and action. I know … that, whether in slavery or freedom, we have always been loyal to the Stars and Stripes, that no schoolhouse has been opened for us that has not been filled.
Expand All
Comments / 0
Add a Comment
Local Alabama State newsLocal Alabama State
Most Popular newsMost Popular

Comments / 0