We don’t want black kids walking down Main Street: a brief history of 4th Street Elementary in Plymouth, NC
by Angela Perez
My post a few months ago about the history of Washington County in eastern North Carolina was the most popular post in the history of this blog. The story and photos got several thousand shares and thousands and thousands of hits. The photos of the rubble of my former elementary school, 4th Street School, were especially popular with folks from Washington County. Many Plymouth residents fondly remember attending that little brick school on the corner of Andrew Jackson and 4th streets.
What many people don’t know is the controversial history behind the school. It was originally built for black students in the 1920s through grant money from the Rosenwald Fund, a fund created in 1917 by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. The fund was intended to improve education for African-American students in the South, primarily through the building of schools for them since they could not attend school with white students.
Throughout the 1920s, W.F. Creadle, the supervisor of the Rosenwald Fund in Raleigh, corresponded with the Washington County school superintendent, John W. Darden, about procuring money for a school for black students in Plymouth. On July 14, 1925, Creadle wrote to Darden with some exasperation: “I am aware of the fact that we have written and conferred a great deal about the colored school situation at Plymouth, but I am still wondering if there is not some way we can do something about it…the colored people are anxious to raise money to help on the building and I have said to you before, we shall be glad to give you $1,500 from the Rosenwald Fund.” The black community in Plymouth was, apparently, ready to take advantage of the available grant money but no action was being taken by the Washington County Board of Education.
Finally, in the summer of 1929, the Washington County board, intending to use the Rosenwald funds as well as other money from other sources, voted to buy land from a man named Van Buren Martin for a price well over its appraised value. Why the board was insistent that the school be located here is not clear, though one National Parks survey document from 1990 speculates the reason was political pressure and cronyism. It was indeed close to the historically black neighborhoods, but there were other near-by parcels of land also available on which to build the school.
Not only was the property overpriced, it was next to railroad tracks, and it was close to the well-to-do white residential neighborhood on Main Street. Because the land around the school that was linked to the black neighborhoods was private property, the students would have to take a longer way to school every day by walking through a neighborhood where they were not welcomed. The land was purchased and the school was built anyway, despite heavy coverage of public criticism from the local newspaper, the Roanoke Beacon. In 1931, due to an outcry by the white community, however, the property between the black neighborhoods and the school was quickly obtained and 4th Street and 3rd Street, which existed but did not extend to the school grounds, were extended so that black students no longer walked past white houses and offended the sensibilities of the well-to-do. The children originally came to the school by way of Andrew Jackson Road which intersected with the white neighborhood of Main Street. That way in to school was quickly diverted by the 4th and 3rd street extensions and the universe returned to its proper balance.
After desegregation, that Rosenwald School became 4th Street School, which I attended in the 70s. Growing up in Plymouth, I never once heard that the school had been a Rosenwald School. Little did I know back then, as our bus pulled up next to the building to drop us off at the door (which was on Crowell Street), that these tiny streets had caused so much controversy in Plymouth, all in the name of making sure black people stayed where they belonged.
I vividly remember singing John Denver songs in the auditorium with black and white kids and having the time of my life. And, oh yeah, I remember a freckle-faced girl named Rita Spruill throwing up her pizza all over me in the lunchroom, which was located in a separate building from the school that was built much later. I remember that lunchroom pizza we got every Friday – it was rectangle shaped and tasted like Totino’s. God, it was good.
Correction: I had originally written in one photo caption that Mr. Estep was principal when I attended 4th Street. But it was, in fact, Mrs. Rascoe. Mr. Estep was my principal at Washington Street School.