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Shirley Pitt climbed up the steps of the old Farmers School and stepped into the past.
“My mother went here,” Pitt said. “This is our history.”
Farmers School was a two-room school north of Silver Lake in the Cliftonville community at the Wilson-Nash county line. It was one of 21 early 20th-century schools attended by members of the African-American community prior to integration.
Pitt, of Wilson, led a group of former students, children of students, neighbors and other interested people through the woods Jan. 29 to pay a visit to the school site.
Past rusty old farm implements, the group beat a new path through the woods to the building.
In the days before the visit, Pitt had gathered pictures of former students and placed them in a frame to display at the wooded pathway leading to the school.
Using hoes, men in the group chopped through years of overgrowth to clear a slender path on the cement steps leading up to the front doors.
Almost every pane in every window was broken out. Thick vines climbed up and around to a holey roof covered with years of leaves and pine straw.
Pitt organized a return to the two-room school to reconnect with an important part of Wilson County’s bygone days.
“I got on the phone and called cousins and the ones that had family here and friends that knew about Farmers School, and they all came out to celebrate today,” Pitt said.
FARMERS MILL COLORED SCHOOL
Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist and president of Sears and Roebuck, led an effort to build more than 5,000 schools across the South between 1917 and 1932 for the purpose of providing education facilities for the African-American population. According to the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office, Farmers School was not one of the 15 Rosenwald schools to be built in Wilson County but might have benefited from some Rosenwald funds.
It isn’t clear when the Farmers Mill Colored School first opened, but county records show that John S. Thompson sold the land for the school to the Wilson County Board of Education for $1 on Oct. 16, 1926. That land was held by Wilson County until Nov. 19, 1951, when it was sold to Alfred Barker, then resold Dec. 17, 1951, to William Johnson, highest bidder in a public auction, for $1,550.
The Farmers Mill Colored School was part of an offering the Wilson County Board of Education made at public auction of 19 African-American schools including New Vester, Jones Hill, Sims, Calvin Level, Wilbanks, Howards, Brooks, Minshews, Ruffin, Lofton, Lucama, Rocky Branch, Williamson, Bynums, Saratoga, Yelverton, Stantonsburg and Evansdale.
The property’s current owner is Cary resident Mary Lynn Thompson Whitley.
TWO TEACHERS, TWO ROOMS
Farmers School was a two-room structure with first- through third-graders taught in one room and fourth- through seventh-graders taught in the other.
Raymond Lucas, 77, of Wilson, went to the school in 1947. Lucas grew up to become the first black deputy in the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office, where he worked for more than 30 years.
“We had an old wood stove that they heated with,” Lucas said. “We lived right across the street from the school. When I was there I could get to school in about five minutes.”
Lucas remembers being one of about 15 or 20 students who attended the school at the time.
“It was real nice when we went there. Mostly everybody in the neighborhood went,” Lucas said. “It brings back a lot of memories and everything there at that school. I was really young at that time.
“A nurse would come there, one of the county nurses, Mable Ellis, and when everybody would see her coming, they would know she was coming to give a shot.”
Rhonnie Mae Arrington Jackson, 87, speaking by phone from her home in San Antonio, Texas, remembers that her room in the school didn’t have desks.
“We had a long table with some on one side and some on the other and some on the end,” Jackson said. “We didn’t have chairs. We had a long bench, and you stepped across the bench and sat down at the table.
Thelma Dorris Winstead Hall of Snow Hill and Annie Morris Winstead Woodard of Rocky Mount were twins born June 6, 1944. They went to Farmers School as 6-year-olds. They learned their ABCs, how to spell their names, how to color pictures and how to play with others.
“We learned how to give respect, manners and to love, be friendly and have friends,” Woodard said. “We couldn’t answer older people with, ‘What?’ It was ‘Yes ma’am.’ ‘No ma’am.’ ‘Sir.’ ‘Yes sir.’ ‘No sir.’ We had to be respectful to older people and use good manners.”
TIME ON THE PLAYGROUND
Jackson and her little sister, Sadie Arrington Sessoms, 85, remember all the students gathering together to wrap the maypole.
“We would have a pole standing up, and we would have some ribbons from the top of the pole coming down to reach where the children were. And there were different color ribbons, and we would walk around that pole and go under one and come out, and the other one would go under us, and we did that all the way down the pole, which made a very beautiful pole,” Sessoms said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Hall and Woodard remember that after a lesson, the children would use a little stage on one side of a classroom for skits, plays and tap dances.
As soon as the twins got into the school on the recent visit, the first place they went was up two steps onto a stage.
“We just had fun back here, and we learned,” Woodard said.
“Then we would go out in the yard and wrap the maypole. A lot of children don’t even know what that is now,” Woodard said. “We had an old pump out there. If we got thirsty, we would go down there and crank up that old pump and drink some cold water and go back to playing.”
PATHS THROUGH THE WOODS
An aerial photograph from 1936 supplied by Will Corbett, GIS coordinator for Wilson County, shows a myriad of paths in the woods leading to the school from the west and north. A large clearing adjacent to the building suggests much activity around the school.
Modern photographs enhanced by light detection and ranging, or LiDAR, technology, clearly show the walking paths and driveways leading to the school and through the adjacent cemetery.
Woodard and Hall said Farmers School had no school bus. The sisters walked with the older students to and from school every school day through a path, a shortcut through the woods that came through the cemetery. Jackson recalls the children walking through the woods eating the berries, the orange fruit of the persimmon tree and the pulp from dangling pods of the locust tree.
“I don’t know if we carried lunch to school or not,” Jackson said. “We would be real hungry and we had to go by a locust tree, and we would pull the locusts off of the tree and eat them. It was a little path where we walked going to school. They were almost like a long corn stalk. They were purple. You would pull them off the tree and break them open and eat what was inside. A lot of times that was all we had to eat, so the locusts were just like we were eating food.”
“All I know is the long walk we walked going to school,” Sessoms recalled last week. “I do remember walking around the edge of somebody’s field.”
The school had no cafeteria.
“Memories, memories, memories,” Hall said. “We had to take our lunch in a brown paper bag every day. Our friends carried sweet potatoes and fatback biscuit, peanut butter and crackers and whatever Mother fixed for us.”
Lucas said the school was named for the Farmer family members who lived in the area.
Sessoms and Jackson came from a family with 14 children.
“My daddy moved every year. All my daddy acted like he knew was farming,” Sessoms said. “As we got old enough to work, he had each one of us working in tobacco.”
The sisters said when they went into the school last week, it was as exciting as the first day they started at Farmers School in 1950.
“It is a wonderful, exciting feeling for me to even come back here where I started at school,” Woodard said. “It’s an excitement for me to be here just with the ones that are here, and I know it will be an excitement for me to see a lot of them I haven’t seen in years and years.”
There are many Farmers buried in a cemetery a short walk north of the school.
“I have a lot of relatives that are there now — grandmother, grandfather, cousins and all buried over there,” Raymond Lucas said. “It is a family grave spot.”
Paul Lucas, a New Jersey resident, drove down to take the tour of the school his family members attended.
“My brother did. My dad did. My brothers was in the last class,” Paul Lucas said. “We lived on the farm here, the Thompson farm here.” He also came to North Carolina see the grave of his father, William Hulen Lucas. Pitt led Lucas to his father’s resting place near the school.
Jimmie Arrington of Wilson said it was an adventure seeing the school again.
“The last time I was over here was when we had a funeral,” said Arrington. “I don’t know how long it has been. It is nice to get back to where everything was started out and see what’s going on now with it. It would be nice if we could have it cleaned up and possibly do something to the school so it could be in better shape for other people to see it in the future.”
Robert Vick of the New Hope community agreed.
“I remember this school being here. When I saw someone had posted something on Facebook about coming to the school, I knew Shirley and all of the Arrington family and several of these folks. I knew their grandparents and all growing up in the community. It is interesting to see someone taking an interest in it. This ought to be preserved because it is a part of the history of this area.”
Pitt said she is planning a large reunion at the school in April.