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Vashti Perry, the daughter of a former slave, went to school, completed high school and began a legacy of education in her family that now includes three generations of college graduates.
Perry was born in 1925, the same year Morgan School, which sits just outside Bailey's town limits on the corner of Mount Pleasant and Winters roads, was built. She attended Morgan from 1931 through 1938, walking three to four miles to and from school each day.
“Her daddy was a proud man, and my mama was proud, too,” said her son, Arthur Perry.
Vashti Perry died in 2015 after a lifetime of instilling in her family, including Arthur, the power of an education.
“Mama and Daddy were sharecroppers. We lived approximately three miles from the school and 90 percent of the time, we walked there,” Perry said. “My mama made sure we went to school daily, and we would work in the fields when we got home. Mama said if the landowner’s children were going to school, we were going to school.”
Morgan was built as one of 5,357 public schools for black children in 15 Southeastern states between 1917 and 1932 through the Rosenwald Fund, established through the collaboration of Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears Roebuck & Co. to promote education and betterment in the rural South. North Carolina had 813 Rosenwald schools, including 17 in Nash County. Morgan, which operated as a school from 1926 to 1956, is one of the best preserved of the Rosenwald schools and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 2006.
The school’s application packet for the national register notes that “in every aspect of its design, execution and overall bearing, Morgan School is a particularly well-preserved example of both the intentions embodied in the Rosenwald School program and as a tangible reminder of the forces that defined the course of African-American education in the South in the early decades of the 20th century.”
The Morgan school building housed two classrooms and what was referred to as an “industrial room,” which was used as a kitchen and lunchroom.
“We would put our lunch bags in that hutch,” Perry said. “We would have ham biscuits, jelly biscuits, preserves, whatever we had at home to eat.”
Two outhouses also sat outside the main schoolhouse structure.
Perry, who, along with his two brothers, also attended Morgan School from first through seventh grade, said he likely was absent a total of five days throughout his school career. He went on to obtain his degree from Elizabeth City State University in 1966 and worked as an educator and coach for more than 35 years throughout the region, including Spaulding High School and Southern Nash High School. Perry retired from teaching in 2002 and coaching in 2007.
Perry, now 75, credits Morgan with establishing a firm educational foundation for its students.
“There were two teachers, and they really had to be coordinated. First through third grade was in one classroom, and fourth through seventh grade was in the second room. Each grade level was working on something different. One would work on math while the other did geology, and the teachers would walk around and make sure everyone stayed on task.
“Some people thought we would be behind when we got to high school, but we weren’t behind. In a lot of ways, we were ahead,” Perry said.
Innovative teachers at Morgan, who often lived in the community with couples like Lee and Fannie Lucas or Thurman and Lettie Freeman, found ways to make sure students were always learning.
“Since we walked to school, it was used as a chance to explore. We learned about nature, all kinds of animals and plants. And the classroom was full of those things,” Perry said. “For an activity we had something called ‘Tall Tales.’ That’s where we would make up stories and get in front of the class to tell it. Everyone was trying to outdo everyone else.”
In addition to being a student at Morgan, Perry said he spent the latter part of his seventh-grade year as the school’s janitor, tending to the school’s pot-bellied, wood-burning stoves.
“I would clean up and put out the fire in the evenings and get to school early in the morning to start to the fire and make sure it was warm when everyone got there.”
Although the family owned no property, Perry said his parents made sure they were self-sufficient.
“We had gardens, chickens, pigs. We had a cow, so there was milk and butter. We didn’t ask the landowner for anything.
“We had everything we needed, if not everything we wanted. And all the time, they made sure we stayed in school.”
Perry said he has worked to instill the values his parents taught him in his children and grandchildren.
“It’s something, coming from sharecroppers to college degrees,” he said. “Education is the key, but don’t ever forget where you came from.”