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One thing about inspirational people is that they’re nearly always engaged in a quest.
They’re searching for something big and the journey drives them forward. That’s what makes them heroes, right? They have the strength and determination to never give up.
But for people of African American descent starting out in small towns in the South, opportunities were historically limited. “Not giving up” often translated to “going somewhere else.”
As a museum in one of those aforementioned small towns, this poses some pretty significant challenges. How do we bring the stories of those inspirational people back home again?
That’s why the discovery of an outdated volume titled History of the American Negro: North Carolina Edition triggered a celebration. Published in 1921, it’s among a series of books focusing on educators, physicians, clergy, politicians, lawyers, and business owners. Best of all, each biographical sketch includes a photograph of its subject.
For the first time, we uncovered a virtual treasure trove of information–both textual and visual.
So our first move was to examine the document’s 864 pages. We ran searches on Wake Forest, Youngsville, Oxford, and other surrounding communities. We were thrilled to discover the story of Ernest Davis, who lost an arm and a leg in a railroad accident and grew up in an orphanage, yet pursued a career as an educator and pastor. By 1919 he was leading two churches in Franklinton.
“I turned my face toward God and education,” Davis is quoted as saying. “For ten years I fought daily every opposition, discouragement, skepticism and indifference.”
And Davis’s words on the factors that lead to social progress are as relevant today as when he spoke them nearly a century ago, “Safe and sane information from the best papers and periodicals in our homes, keeping our fingers on the pulse of current history, highly cultured spiritual but practical ministry, and teachers that can ‘deliver the goods’ with a heart to work.”
One of the few women profiled is Annie Elizabeth Cooke Weeks, also an educator.
Weeks was from Wake Forest and, by the time the History was published, had already seen her life appear in print. She had authored an autobiographical essay that was published in 1907 in a journal called the Baptist Home Mission Monthly.
“I was born December 4, 1875, in a little log cabin on a plantation known as the Brooks’ plantation in a little town seventeen miles north of Raleigh, known as Wake Forest, North Carolina…. (When) I was four weeks old… we moved to another house, this also being a log cabin, but with a little more room…. At the age of five my mother allowed me to go to school with the teacher who boarded not very far from our house…. I had a great desire for an education that I might make a useful woman of myself. Being the fifth child of a family of thirteen children whose parents were very poor, there seemed to be no possible chance for me to accomplish my aim… my father could only spare us from the farm about two or three months during the year.”
Weeks writes about growing anxious, feeling she’d never achieve her goal of receiving an education. But she never gave up. And when she came across a published story–in an unnamed newspaper or magazine–it caught her eye with a headline that really spoke to her:
I’ll find a way or make it!
This seemingly small thing is all it took for Weeks to keep going. Leaning on her Christian faith, still hoeing cotton and corn from morning to night, she became energized.
And she found a way.
For the next few years, Weeks made a habit of slipping off to the schoolroom whenever possible. She studied as hard as she worked on the farm–maybe harder. By age sixteen, she had completed public school and was ready to enter Shaw University.
Weeks graduated from college in 1900 and pursued a long, successful career in education. Not coincidentally, it briefly included teaching back in her hometown of Wake Forest, in the public school for black children.
Among the farm children who attended that segregated Wake Forest school was a boy named Hammond Pope who grew up in the 1890s, was a gifted student and, like Weeks, eventually moved on. Pope studied at the National Training School in Durham (now North Carolina Central University) and majored in Theology.
Pope became an ordained minister and led congregations at Ebenezer Church in Durham, Mount Bright Church in Hillsboro, Olive Branch Baptist Church in Wake Forest, and First Baptist Church in Fayetteville.
Members of the Pope family still live in town, as do members of the family of the final Wake Forest resident we found profiled in the History. In fact, this one hits very close to home.
Willie Edward Dent, born in 1894, is the great uncle of Dianne Laws, current treasurer of the Wake Forest Historical Association and a past president of the DuBois Alumni Association. He is connected in this way to the museum and other civic organizations that have worked over the past decades to preserve our shared history.
Dent’s wife, Mary Lula Cooke Dent, was– in true small town fashion–the sister of Annie Elizabeth Cooke Weeks (profiled above). His parents, like many members of the local African American community, contributed to the success of Wake Forest College through daily jobs that kept the institution running.
We’ve written previously about Genatus Dent, who worked as a minister and as a landscaper for Wake Forest College Professor James L. Lake. His wife Betty was employed by College Registrar Grady Patterson and made a difference in the lives of the Patterson daughters, as described in a memoir by Sarah Patterson Barge.
“She had taught me one useful skill–how to iron a man’s starched shirt without a wrinkle–so I must have been at least ten or twelve before she left us. I wish I had paid more attention to her culinary skills. I never saw her use a recipe. I can see her now, sitting in the low, straight-backed chair she favored, a spoon and a big bowl in her lap, creaming butter and sugar by hand for a cake in the making. She made delicious cornbread–thin, flat and crispy on the outside, hot and mealy inside–and blackberry roll, a wonderful cobbler-like dessert made from fresh berries and served warm. Sweet potato pie served with grape jelly was another of her specialties.”
Willie Edward Dent attended Kittrell College, served as a church deacon, and worked for North Carolina Mutual after he found an opening in the insurance field. The book says “his work has been of such character as to commend him to the best people of both races.”
Dent eventually relocated to Washington, D.C.
This History, described in the preface as a “collection of biographies of race leaders,” is an unexpected gift for the museum. At last, and frequently for the first time, we see the faces and read the stories of people of color as they should be told.
Not how they were perceived by the white community, but how they perceived themselves.
In other words, how they actually lived. Who they really were.
That has been our quest, and we’re happy to finally make some progress.
What a wonderful way to celebrate Black History Month.