Former students recall blacks-only Graham schools

Apr. 21, 2014 @ 10:29 AM

There is one Graham High School now, but it is not the first one, and for a time there was more than one school going by the name.

Nettie Baldwin graduated from Graham High School in 1957. Her diploma calls it Graham High School, but a relative's diploma from 1940 calls in Graham Colored High School. In some places it was called Graham Negro High School, but Baldwin says she and her classmates called it Graham High School, just like the white school.

Baldwin is working on getting a historic marker at Gilbreath and Ray streets where the old school was.

People know the name Jordan Sellars, the historically black high school in Burlington. People remember the painful adjustment when the school closed during integration, and their students were brought into Walter Williams High School.

People also remember Central High School in Graham, the black school that opened in the early 1960s and became today's Graham High School when county schools integrated.

Baldwin's Graham High School gets a mention in some local history books, but even Baldwin and her classmates had a hard time finding a photo of it. But it made a big difference for them.

For her, and for a lot of other rural Alamance County black teenagers in the segregation era, the school was one of the few opportunities to get a four-year high school education.

Schools for black children go back to the 1870s. But Baldwin said there were not many options after a certain age.

"Once you completed eighth grade — up until 1928, there was nothing for you to do," Baldwin said, "unless your parents were able to send you away."

For Baldwin the opportunity led her to college, a career in education and a PhD.

"I went to school all my life," Boswell said.

Growing up not far from Saxapahaw, like a lot of people in rural Alamance County, Baldwin started her education in a one-room school house, the Morrow Grove Colored School.

Her great-grandfather was on the school committee. A local man named Thomas Morrow sold the land the school sat on for $1, and Baldwin thinks the local church might have had a hand in starting the school.

By the 1930s there were about 30 "colored" county schools, like the Unity School in Miles Chapel.

Some of them were Rosenwald schools. Julius Rosenwald, CEO of Sears and Roebuck, working with Booker T. Washington, created matching grants to build rural schools for black children in 15 states between 1913 and the 1930s.

Alamance County had eight of them, according to the Rosenwald School database. The Unity School got $400 from Rosenwald, according to the database, $500 came from public money, and $1,400 from the community, according to the database.

Baldwin says there were other small schools for black children, but they were so loosely associated with the county, they did not always make the record. Most of them closed down as districts consolidated schools.

Schools came together through community efforts, or the efforts of just a few people.

The Woodsdale School started in the home of a woman named Ida Hunter. She started teaching black girls at her home near Haw River before getting permission to use an old church building on Trollinger Road, according to "Alamance County: The Legacy of its People and Places" by Elinor Samons Euliss.

Those little schools did not usually have much, but they were close to home.

"Where I grew up in the country 15 miles from Graham — halfway to Chapel Hill — you could not walk it," Baldwin said. "So it's interesting to see how hard people worked to get educated."

Carolyn Graves, who graduated with Baldwin, said the old school was kind of like a one-room school house — it taught first through 12th grade — just bigger.

Graves said students came from all over the county — Elon and Mebane, Snow Camp and Clover Garden. The school was not big. She thinks her graduating class was about 50 students.

"The kids today don't realize what we've been through," Graves said.

Sallye Morrow graduated from Graham High School in 1943, and after she finished college, she came back to teach in 1948. She said the teacher who taught her first grade was still teaching when she started working there, and she was not the only one to stick with it so long.

The Colored Graham High School closed in 1961, when Central High School opened.