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Development of a community

South Boston News
Lucille Hudson / February 27, 2013
Settled in a chair at the Clarksville Regional Museum on a Sunday afternoon, 94-year-old Lucille Hudson shared the history of education for African-Americans in Mecklenburg County as part of the museum’s celebration of Black History Month.

Hudson is a retired educator, former school superintendent and product of two of the early local African-American schools, the Cook School, a one-room elementary, and the Mecklenburg County Training School, the first public black high school in the county.

Now, she and the members of the Mecklenburg County Training School Alumni Association are assembling the history of “The Development of Negro Education in Mecklenburg County,” which they hope to one day house in a museum.

“If there was one thing my parents knew, as they struggled to rise from slavery to poverty and beyond, it was that education was the way to a better life,” said Hudson. Sadly, some families were hesitant about educating their children — they wanted to keep them on the farm, since that was the only life they knew.

African-American families that wanted a better life for their children were often too poor to afford private schools like the Thyne Institute in Chase City, and black children could not attend white schools.

The luckiest children lived in communities where their church was able to scrape together sufficient funds to erect a meager one-room schoolhouse. Often, those schools were built in communities where there was evidence of large families. However, the schooling ended with the elementary grades.

Hudson was began her education at the Cook School, which operated from 1890 until 1942 on land adjacent to the farm owned by her family. She said the one-room schoolhouse was typical of the African-American schools of the era. It was a log cabin that lacked indoor plumbing and a good source of heat. Lunches were often cooked at home by the teacher or parents and brought to school. The restroom facilities were two outhouses, one for the girls and the other for the boys. Despite these deplorable conditions, children often walked miles to attend class.

Before 1915, public education for black children ended after elementary school. Hudson said the children “were walking the street.” A rudimentary public secondary school was started in 1915, but it lacked the space and resources to educate the area black youth and adults who clamored for its services.

Many black adults could not read or write even in the early 1900s. These adults would come to the schools after hours to study.

In 1920, Mathilda Booker came to Mecklenburg County. Funded by a private foundation in Philadelphia, the Jeannes Foundation, Booker spent the next 35 years improving educational opportunities for black children in the area. Her first success was the creation and construction of the first black public high school in Mecklenburg County, the Mecklenburg County Training Academy. Located in South Hill, it was a modern six-room school with an auditorium that seated 500 people.

By 1947, thanks in large part to the efforts of Mathilda Booker, as well as financing from local churches, the Rosenwald Foundation (also out of Pennsylvania), and black families living in the area, there were 53 rural schools for blacks in Mecklenburg County — 23 in the eastern half of the county and 30 in the western half. One of those schools was West End High School.

Hudson said even by the 1940s and 1950s, most rural areas placed the financial impetus for building a school for African-Americans on the area’s black families. They were required to buy the land, pay for the construction of the building, and the salaries of teachers.

With school buildings in place, Booker next fought to equalize the salaries paid to black teachers to put them on par with white teachers. A skilled orator, Booker took her message to the school board and the legislature. Gradually her efforts paid off, said Hudson, wife of late county supervisor James A. Hudson Sr.

Mathilda Booker died in 1957, two years after she retired as superintendent over the black schools in Mecklenburg County. Though she never saw her ultimate dream, an integrated school system, Booker laid the groundwork for equal educational opportunities for all students.

Now, members of the Mecklenburg County Training School Alumni Association are working to preserve the memory of Booker and honor those educators who pioneered black education in Mecklenburg County.

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