(CIRCA Magazine – Our Heritage column by regional historian Amy Pierce)
In its mission to chronicle all aspects of both Wake Forest and Wake Forest College history, the Wake Forest Historical Museum recently unveiled its much-anticipated Women of Wake Forest permanent exhibit. Featuring photographs, biographies, and small artifacts, the exhibit recognizes the significant and varied roles that women have held in the history and culture of the town of Wake Forest. In what will ultimately represent the lives of up to 50 notable women, the first dozen or so inductees include Ruby Reid, the town’s first telephone operator. The successful businesswoman also endowed the long-lived (53 years) Seminary childcare center named for her. Another initial honoree, former Radio City Rockette, Elizabeth Hunt Holding, taught dance to four generations of young girls. Postmistress Nancy Cullom Harris created the first personal shopper business in the area in the 1940s. The museum plans to expand the exhibit every year or two.
Timed to coincide with the March opening was a Women’s History Symposium, an outgrowth of the museum’s receipt of “a generous grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council to record on film the oral histories of three local women who grew up in town many years ago and can describe what life was like. … Noted women’s history researcher and author Emily Herring Wilson … conducted the interviews … Together with our subjects, Emily created a vibrant historical record that will deepen our understanding of the reality women and girls experienced in the Town of Wake Forest dating back nearly a century,” (Remembering Wake Forest: Women of Northeast Wake Forest and the Mill Village). The three eventual inductees into the exhibit – Evelyn Jones, Geraldine Hall-Taylor, and Joyce Davis – participated in the associated events. Eventually part of a storytelling display within the Women’s History exhibit, their three oral histories are archived as part of the museum’s full documentary film collection.
Times were hard in the first quarter of the last century for the families of these three women, but hard times were normal for most everyone. Evelyn and Geraldine grew up in the historically African-American northeast neighborhood, while Joyce “came up” in the Mill Village. “People think it was just us in the Mill Village that was poor,” the 96-year old told me, “but the professors didn’t make much, either. Most folks were poor back then.” Geraldine was helping to earn a living for her single-parent family in her mid teens, rising early to cross the tracks, pick up pillowcases of professors’ families’ clothes, then go home to wash and hang them out to dry. Later, she’d iron and deliver them. As Evelyn told me, “Most of the work was at the college, the mill, or the boarding houses on Faculty Avenue.” Her father worked for the college, her mother washed and ironed (with Evelyn’s help) for college families, and her grandfather and his son both worked at the mill.
The three communities – Mill Village, Northeast Wake Forest, and the College – were themselves families, yet three families clearly intertwined. Mill children played with African American children from the northeast neighborhood, though segregated educationally. And education is what the 1833 college-birth era of Wake Forest was built upon, an emphasis extending to the other communities, as well. “For girls from the Mill Village, like Joyce, school wasn’t only about learning … frequently it was also a proving ground… the place where they could use intelligence and hard work to show they were every bit as smart and accomplished as the more affluent children of Wake Forest College professors.” In the film, Joyce spoke about the effort made for good grades: “I would sit up all night, if I had to do it, so I could say I made as much if not better than they did. … And that’s what made our school average so high …”
Like Joyce’s and her classmates’ dedication to academic achievement, the devotion to education seen in northeast Wake Forest was reflected by its two schools, Allen Young (est. 1905) and DuBois (est. 1922 as Wake Forest Graded). “The academic burden was heavy for black students who, as the saying goes, had to be twice as good just to prove they were equal.” The extraordinary emphasis by African-Americans on the value of education is something most whites can’t fully share because we’ve not usually had to struggle and suffer as much for our own learning opportunities. DuBois graduates like Evelyn and Geraldine are still living the richness of their school experience today, and doing great things both out in the world and here in the local community.
These three women, surely Wake Forest treasures, are a living legacy to the history and heritage of our community, and we are all proud to claim them as our own.
Thanks to Jennifer Smart, Ed Morris, Durward Matheny, Joyce Davis, and Evelyn Jones. For more information on the town’s northeast neighborhood and Mill Village, please visit ourheritageblog.wordpress.com.
Amy Pierce lives in Wake Forest’s Mill Village, where she is a writer, minister, and spiritual counselor.
She can be reached at 919-554-2711 or visit http://www.authenticself.us.