I grew up hearing stories from my parents about growing up in rural communities and starting school there, then attending high school in town. The early years involved long commutes by foot, and, by the 1930s, there were buses to transport children from the rural communities to “consolidated” junior high and high schools in town.
I recently asked my Aunt Clo, who was born in 1913, to tell me about her childhood education: “In the lower grades I attended Collins Grove School, in the middle grades I went to West Wake in New Hill, and for high school I went to Apex. My older brothers and sisters had to board in Holly Springs for high school. But when school buses came along, things changed.”
Aunt Clo (her real name is Clorine; now you know why we call her “Clo”) proudly told me that she still has her Apex High School ring. She also said that “one of the problems with growing up so far out in the county was that you didn’t have many dates like our classmates in town. We didn’t travel much. That was before many people got cars.”
Katharine Jones Ogburn and her brother Ben Jones were a few years younger than my Aunt Clo, but they were about the same age as my father, and his classmates at Apex High School. They, too, grew up out in the country.
Katharine: “We attended the Fairview School for the first seven grades, then went to high school in Apex. At Fairview we only went six months a year because of all the time off for harvesting tobacco, cotton, and other crops. At first there were only two classrooms: the county paid for one room and the community paid for the other.”
Ben: “Our mother was a school teacher (at the Fairview School). She was a single mother taking care of three children. In 1937 her salary was fifty-five dollars per month! It isn’t fair that teachers get such low wages.”
Not far from Fairview was an African-American community known as Matthews. The school was located two-tenths of a mile west of the intersection of Kildaire and Ten-Ten, on the south side of Ten-Ten, in what is now a stand of young pine trees. That’s where Carlious Raines began his education. “I went to Matthews School… . There were two rooms in the schoolhouse, and two teachers. Later I went to the school in Apex. Like most boys, I had to miss a lot of school because I was needed on the farm.”
As you can see, missing school to work on the farm was a common theme among both black and white children of that era. Compounding the challenge for black children was segregation, and the fact that there was only one public high school for black children in all of North Carolina. That school was in a community known as Method, in west Raleigh, and was known as the Berry O’Kelly School. Like most of his Apex classmates, Carlious Raines was never able to attend high school. And of those who did, few graduated. Here are their stories.
Rev. William Davis: “I graduated from the Rosenwald school (Apex Colored School) in 1937, the seventh grade. Then I went to Berry O’Kelly one year. I did not have the privilege of continuing. My father was a sharecropper, and we did not have the funds. My dad needed us on the farm.”
Emma Jones Council started school in the Scott’s Grove community near Carpenter, then attended the Apex Colored School through the seventh grade, just like Rev. Davis. She told me the Apex-area children before her had to room there, “but by the time I came along they had a bus. One bus went to New Hill and Friendship. The Apex bus picked us up at the Colored School, then picked up more children in Cary and Asbury on the way to Method. I went there through Christmas in the tenth grade.” But then a familiar story: “I quit because we didn’t have much money for school supplies, and my family needed me to earn money. That was the time of the Granville wilt. We weren’t making much from tobacco.”
Whether black or white, country children had to rise early to get their chores done before school. During tobacco season that could mean rising at 4 a.m. to empty a barn. (They were still doing that in my era, the 1960s and 70s.) Typical year-round chores included milking the cows, feeding the pigs, and tending to the chickens. In the wintertime, though, the first task was just to get warm enough to do anything else. Here’s how Gladys Tunstall Donnelly remembered it: “We would wake up at five or six o’clock and run to the fire place to get warm.”
Gladys said the best part about growing up in the country was the breakfast. “My momma … made a big pan of biscuits every morning. We’d take fried country ham from pigs we raised and make a ham biscuit. Or we’d take fried fatback and make a fatback biscuit. Then there was molasses: I could sop molasses better than anybody.” The worst part was walking one or two miles “through the mud, rain, or cold” to catch the school bus.
Bobbie Crowder White grew up in town, but she has fond memories of the country kids. Again, it was all about the food: “Those of us who lived in town would trade our lunches with classmates who lived in the country. That way we got to eat tomato sandwiches, country ham. What a treat!”
Imagine being nearly a century old, and still salivating over the country ham, biscuits, and the home-grown tomatoes you ate 90 years ago. That must have been some good food! Will our children remember their Fruit Loops cereal and their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with quite the same gusto? I don’t think so.
Warren Holleman and his brother Toby are authors of Pluck, Perseverance, and Paint: Apex, North Carolina: Beginnings to 1941. Copies are available from The Rusty Bucket in historic downtown Apex.