History of Black Schools

Tillman discusses history of black schools

Wednesday, April 14, 2010 2:25 pm

When Brookhaven’s Annie Tillman reached the eighth grade, she found herself alone.

Tillman, a 32-year educator who retired from the Brookhaven School District in 2004, was the only member of her small class who made it that far at the all-black Pilgrim’s Rest School. It was time to move on.

For blacks, Brookhaven’s Alexander High School was the only choice.

“Back then, unless you were in the city school system, you had to stay at your school until you finished eighth grade. I wrote Mr. (A.A.) Alexander and asked him if I could attend, and he wrote me back and I said I could,” Tillman said.

AHS has long since been integrated and now serves the city school district as Alexander Junior High School. Pilgrim’s Rest School was swept up in consolidation and abandoned long ago, though the building still stands on Highway 583.

The times have changed, but Tillman remembers them well.

Speaking to a meeting of the Lincoln County Historical and Genealogical Society Tuesday night, she gave a short history of rural Negro Schools in Lincoln County based on her own research. Like all early rural schools, black schools were scattered, numerous and community-oriented.

“In the county there were many community schools. Basically, every church had its own little school,” Tillman said. “Most of them only went to the eighth grade, and once you passed the eighth grade you had to move on somewhere else. Back then it was Alexander.”

By transferring to AHS, Tillman was afforded new education opportunities, but the transportation was tough. Her father would drive her into town in the mornings, and when school was out she’d catch a bus that took her as far as Hog Chain. From there, it was a two-mile walk through the woods to get home.

Later on, Tillman had to make the two-mile walk twice a day to get back and forth to Alexander. The district didn’t extend its buses to transport black students, causing many to drop out. Others were lucky enough to make arrangements to stay with families in Brookhaven and journey back to their homes in the county on the weekends.

Tillman walked.

“In those days you got to school as best you could,” she said.

The story was basically the same for the students of all Lincoln County’s black schools, and there were many – Damascus, Topisaw, Norfield, New Hope, Antioch, Mt. Moriah and more. Tillman said most of the schools had five to 10 students per grade and were staffed by a single teacher, sometimes two.

Eventually, the small community schools were consolidated into three major black schools – Progress High School, Friendship High School and Lincoln County Training School.

Friendship was one of the oldest schools, Tillman said, and existed prior to consolidation. Lincoln County Training School was built in 1924 with money donated by Sears, Roebuck and Co., and served southern Lincoln County. Several schools in the northwest area of the county joined to form Progress, which was built in 1950 and saw its first class attend in 1951.

In 1958, construction began on Eva Harris School in Brookhaven, and soon all three black consolidated county schools were combined there. The first class graduated in 1961, and later that year parts of the county were annexed into the Brookhaven district, extended transportation to black students for the first time.

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