From Slavery to Freedom in Wake Forest

When Calvin Jones arrived at his newly purchased farm in 1821–in the part of the county he later named “Wake Forest”–he brought more than his family.

Period Drawing, Library of Congress, ca. 1840
Library of Congress, Pencil Drawing, ca. 1840

He also brought a number of slaves who were expected to work the land, clean the house, prepare the food, and help care for the children. Although most small farmers were too poor to own slaves, a handful of plantations in the Wake Forest area were large. These relied on slave labor to plant and harvest up to thousands of acres.

The signed note (below) gives a slave named Stephen permission to walk to the Wall plantation from the Harris plantation. Both were north of town, in the vicinity of Harris and Wall roads, near current day Joyner Park.

Slave Travel - Note of Permission

In researching her family history, genealogist and author Katie Brown Bennett traced her enslaved ancestors to Wake Forest. Her great-great-great-great grandmothers, Grace and Penny, were owned by Calvin Jones, making them among the first African Americans documented as residents of the community.

Upon completing her research, Bennett wrote a book titled, “Soaking the Yule Log,” which refers to a story she learned about masters and slaves. It was said to be tradition that masters would give their slaves a Christmas break for as long as the yule log would burn. Showing their ingenuity, some slaves learned to soak the log in water to make it burn more slowly.

“Doctor” Tom Jeffries

Born a slave in Virginia, Tom Jeffries came to Wake Forest in 1884 and is most famous for planting the college magnolias and building the 3,000 foot stone wall that encircles the campus where he worked for 43-years. Jeffries was a sharp-witted philosopher, and students who sought his advice gave him the honorary title of “Doctor.”

When he died in 1927, his funeral was held in the College Chapel with the faculty serving as pall bearers. This photograph of Tom Jeffries appeared 116-years ago in the yearbook for Wake Forest College, the Howler.

“Aunt” Ellen Lewis

Ellen Lewis, circa 1940Ellen Lewis was a locally famous midwife who delivered hundreds of babies, both black and white. She worked in Wake Forest and the surrounding areas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although now considered politically incorrect, the title of “Aunt” was used in that era to show respect for African American women with important roles in the community.

Lewis began life as a slave living and working on a Wake Forest farm, and was about 15-years-old when the Civil War ended in 1865 and she was set free. In a newspaper article published shortly before her death in 1950 at age 101, a reporter wrote, “Aunt Ellen doesn’t like to talk about mistreatment of the slaves…. memories of those days make her feel bad, and she wants to be happy in the present.”

Olive Branch Baptist Church

Olive Branch Sunday SchoolDuring the Civil War, slaves worshipping at Wake Forest Baptist Church broke away to create their own congregation. First located on the college grounds, Olive Branch Baptist Church eventually moved to a town location.

In this circa 1946 photograph, Sunday school children pose with teachers. The building burned in 1956 and was replaced by a brick structure. The church remains an important part of the town.

The Historic Cemetery of Friendship Chapel Baptist Church

Friendship Chapel, Historic CemeteryThe African American congregation of Friendship Chapel established a church cemetery in a grove of trees long known as a sacred place. This is where the slaves had met to worship long before the construction of any formal church in Forestville. The grove of trees now shelters what are thought to be hundreds of graves, marked and unmarked, covering a span of time that stretches from the 1800s to the 1950s.

The cemetery still exists today, located northeast of Holding Village behind Heritage Greens Drive. The graves in the cemetery face east, as do most traditional gravesites. This is a rule that reflects both Christian and African customs and religious views about the afterlife.

Prior to emancipation, slaves on a plantation would handle all of the burial rites for the families of both whites and African Americans. This included washing and dressing the bodies, digging the graves, and maintaining the white family’s cemetery. After the Civil War, former slaves accustomed to these duties frequently became the funeral
directors for African American churches and cemeteries.

Grave at Friendship Chapel CemeteryBaby Pattie Hicks died the day she was born in 1918, the year of the infamous, worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic. This raises questions about whether her mother was perhaps ill with the flu at the time of the birth.

This marker also shows hints of changing customs in the South. Before the Civil War, it was up to slave owners to determine if a marker would be placed. For that reason, formal headstones in African American cemeteries were uncommon, and children’s graves rarely were marked by anything other than field stones.

Many headstones of this new era were designed to resemble marble or granite. This one was stamped with lettered stencils and attached to the base with two thick swathes of concrete to help keep it upright.

The Wake Forest Normal and Industrial School

The Wake Forest Normal and Industrial School

The Wake Forest Normal and Industrial School was founded by Allen L.Young, an inspired educator who was born in Wake Forest, likely the son of former slaves.

Brought up around the Wake Forest College campus, Young’s intellectual abilities attracted the interest of professors, who gave him private lessons and tutoring. He went on to become a career educator, establishing the town’s first school for African-American children.

The Normal and Industrial School was in existence from 1905 to approximately 1957. It attracted pupils from around the region, housing them in dormitories on the grounds of a large property located along North White Street in the town’s northeast neighborhood.

In its heyday, the school enrolled up to 300 students each year, with instruction in subjects including Latin, French, and civil government.

The DuBois School

The DuBois School, 1946In the early part of the 20th century, American businessman Julius Rosenwald, part-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, founded the Rosenwald Fund to improve educational opportunities for African American students. As public funding and private donations were also required, activists across the rural South raised millions of dollars to provide education for all.

More than 5,000 schools, shops, and teachers’ homes eventually received funding, and the Wake Forest Graded Colored School, founded in 1926, was among them.

The school, originally financed and built by members of the town’s black community, used the new funds to add a high school, several lower school classrooms, and a 366-seat auditorium.

With the new expansion came a new identity. The institution’s name was changed to the DuBois School in honor of prominent activist and philosopher Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D from Harvard University and an outspoken proponent of civil rights.

By 1932, the Rosenwald Schools could accommodate one-third of all African American children in the South.

The photograph of the DuBois School’s third-grade class (above) is dated 1946.

The yearbook in the case below dates from the mid-1960s, shortly before the end of educational segregation in Wake Forest.

1965 DuBois School Yearbook


  1. Fabulous reading 🙂 I love and respect the heritage of Wake Forest 🙂 Thank you 🙂

  2. Born in 1946, I am a living witness to that era & have written my auto biography detailing what it was like during that time entitled “Twisted Metal/Scented Petals”. Relive the past with me in historic Wake Forest!! I’m Otis Jones

  3. My class of 1964 wrote & designed the first DuBois yearbook. My autobiography, entitled Twisted Metal tells about growing up in Wake Forest. It’s on

  4. Thank you so much for this. I was @ Friendship’s Cemetery yesterday visiting my grandparents and as I left I turned on my gps for my next destination and heard it mention “head towards Cimarron pkwy” and I noticed the historic Forestville sign. This made me do a Google search when I got home and that lead me here to your article. I’ve never known that Friendship’s grave was historic or a sacred place before this visit.

  5. So glad that you found and enjoyed the post on the Forestville/Friendship Chapel historic cemetery. We hope to do some more in the way of interpretative signage in the area before too long.

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