Viewpoint: A history of Iredell County black schools

Posted at 10:52 PM on Jul 21, 2019


Editor's Note: Dorothy Woodard, a retired educator and community volunteer, shared with the Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education a brief history of Iredell County black schools during the July 15 school board meeting. Woodard requested that a relief of Mrs. Mary C. Holiday be moved back to the Unity Center. It was moved to the Iredell Public Library when the Unity building fell into a state of disrepair. Her request was approved by the school board.


During the latter half of the 19th century and throughout much of the 20th century, the education system in the United States was less than adequate for blacks. In many instances, a formal education was not available at all.

As a result, several private initiatives took off in the late 19th century and carried forward into modern times. Those programs provided an opportunity where there previously had been none. One such opportunity that touched hundreds of communities was the Jeanes school funding program named for its generous founder, Anna T. Jeanes.

Jeanes, a Quaker from Philadelphia, was a well-to-do single woman in the 1800s who was interested in the causes of her day. In time, she inherited a great deal of money. Around the turn of the century, she began to donate her fortune to charity, and in 1907, shortly before she died, she gave $1 million to a fund of income-bearing securities to provide education to Negro students in rural areas of the South.

Jeanes met Booker T. Washington at a meeting in Philadelphia. He was a leader who believed that the way for Negroes to succeed was through vocational education and a willingness to focus their efforts on improving their economic rather than their political status.

She had become interested in the problems of small schools struggling to survive without the help of philanthropic organizations or state monies. As a result of that meeting, Jeanes told Washington to put together a board of trustees and to spend her money in the rural areas where most Negroes lived. She wanted to provide supervisors for rural schools. They would serve as consultants and assistants to the teachers, most of whom had little training.

Many prominent white men served on its board, including, at various times, six men who had served as U.S. presidents. Although several other educational foundations existed during this period, the Jeanes fund was the only one with Negroes sitting on the board and wielding some power over how to spend the money.

Jeanes had insisted that Booker T. Washington sit on the board, and that he have the authority to select other members. He selected other men who favored industrial education for Negroes, rather than educating Negroes for the professions, which might challenge the social and economic status quo.

The Jeanes foundation became known as the Negro Rural School Fund and lasted until 1936. The money associated with the fund was invested in governmental bonds, which were normally very secure. Unfortunately, the Great Depression took its toll on the American economy, as it did throughout the world, and as interest rates fell the fund dwindled.

In addition to early black schools suffering from a lack of money, most black teachers were paid less than their white counterparts. And, in general, most Jeanes teachers were black women because white communities felt less threatened by female black educators.

Initially, Jeanes’ teachers had to teach in one-room schoolhouses or hold classes in churches. The school year lasted only about seven months because the students' help was needed during harvest in the fall and planting in the spring. The early focus of the Jeanes' instructors was on vocational education and improving the school facilities. Later, Jeanes programs taught more liberal arts to produce a better-rounded student.

Many Jeanes teachers were trained in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The administrators of the funds also encouraged and raised money to maintain the school, fund field trips and graduation and encouraged blacks to vote.

Ultimately, the Jeanes programs remained in place until the 1960s, when desegregation began to be a reality throughout the country.

Mrs. Mary Charlton Holiday was the Jeanes supervisor in Iredell County. She was born in Pulaski, Va., and moved here in 1915. She described the schools as "little shacks and absolutely no classroom materials at all with students holding umbrellas to keep rain from dripping down on their desks."

She consolidated the 39 schools into 11 in the local black communities. Mrs. Holiday was very instrumental in getting families to raise the money required to match donations from Rosenwald Fund in order to build a school.

"lt was kind of a fever," she explained. “When one community found out another had built a school, they'd get busy to raise their money for matching by the Rosenwald Fund and the school board."

She worked with churches and other community groups, helping to improve sanitation and making the communities better places to live. Mrs. Holiday spent her last year before retirement as combination class teacher at Chestnut Grove. (Woodard was in her class).

Rosenwald Schools in Iredell County were:
• Chestnut Grove (1927-28)
• Coddle Creek (1921-22 and 1926-27)
• Elmwood (1921-22 and 1926-27)
• Morrows (1924-25)
• Neill Town (1922-23)
• Piney Grove (1923-24 and 1926-27)
• Rocky Knoll (1923-24)
• Scotts (1926-27)
• Troutman (1920-21)
• Unity (1920-21)
• Woodrow (1921-22)

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