Wake Forest Historical Museum

Intern Reflections: “The rich legacy of Black education across generations.”

This post was written by Kate Pearson, a Wake Forest University student. As an intern at the museum, Pearson began compiling a biographical database that documents African American history in Wake Forest from the mid-18th to the early 20th century. In this blog post, Pearson looks at the Mitchell family’s legacy in Wake Forest. Alexander and Nathaniel Mitchell were residents of the historic Northeast Community. Learn more about the Northeast Community by exploring the Town’s new StoryMap project.

From the bricklayers of the 19th century to the trustees of the 21st, Black people have always been integrated into the academy of the south. Wake Forest University has been reckoning with this through the Slavery Race and Memory Project. This is vital work, but more often than not, a focus on Black communities and the college becomes a study of trauma, pain, and physical labor. We fail to see how Black scholarship and pedagogy predates the integration of Wake Forest University. It is vital to understand slavery’s role within the project of the college—from the endowment and financial gains, systems of labor, and racial dynamics. Slavery and its legacies are integral to the story of Wake Forest; however, so is Black success. 

As an intern with the Wake Forest Historical Museum, I’ve been pouring through census data, finding traces of children as young as six, adult musicians, religious leaders, and school teachers who contributed to a project of Black learning prior to and in the aftermath of emancipation in Wake Forest. These sources reveal a larger story of Black resilience and commitment to their own education, rather than as laborers for white learning. Their stories are just as integral to an understanding of Wake Forest and its impact as the staff members and laborers who toiled on the old and new campuses; their lives show the academic project of Wake Forest as one of success, survival, resilience, and resistance. 

The individuals I have studied so far lived during a decisive turning point of pre- and post- chattel enslavement, a period when education was integral to Black success. The Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency charged with supporting newly-freed Black folk as they established their own communities, kept detailed records chronicling the funding and growth of Black schools in North Carolina between 1865 and 1870. One of those schools was started by members of Olive Branch Baptist Church. After the Civil War, the Black members of Wake Forest Baptist Church, a congregation founded by Wake Forest College students in 1834, broke away from Wake Forest Baptist and founded Olive Branch. In 1866, Olive Branch began offering a Sunday school that by the following year had blossomed into a day school for local Black children. One of the trustees of the school, Ralph Pearce, was also a day laborer at Wake Forest College. Pearce’s story reminds us that we should not limit the focus of our studies to the physical labor or monetary value Black people contributed to the College. If we did, we’d miss the contributions he and others made as community leaders in Wake Forest.

Handwritten text of a deed.
Excerpt of a deed in which Ralph Pearce is listed as one of the trustees of Olive Branch School. The deed is for land purchased by school trustees for $100 from Wake Forest College Professor William Gaston Simmons on November 25, 1869.

Freedmen’s schools created a safe harbor for Black families. In 1866, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a series of laws that restricted the rights of Black people and criminalized individuals—including children—who could not easily prove their employment. These so-called “Black Codes” even allowed white North Carolinians to force formerly enslaved people back into involuntary servitude. This created an imperative to find children a safe place to go during the day. Alexander Mitchell who was born around 1852, may have attended a freedmen’s school as a child. At some point after the Civil War, he moved to Wake Forest from the Smithfield area, and by 1870 Mitchell was a school teacher living in Wake Forest’s Northeast community. Mitchell likely taught at the Olive Branch school, because in the 1880s he served as a Deacon at Olive Branch Church.

Scan of a handwritten report.
The second page of a report of freedmen’s schools in North Carolina for the month of June 1867. Found in the Records of the Superintendent of Education for the State of North Carolina Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870, National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Alexander Mitchell’s work left a legacy to be built upon by future generations of Black educators in Wake Forest. In 1890, Mitchell’s son, Nathaniel, is listed as a wage earner and literate member of the Wake Forest community in a time where 66% of Black men were illiterate. Census annotations like “Can read and write: yes” seem inconsequential, but truly speak to a legacy of triumph in a world fraught with terror. In 1905, Nathaniel helped co-found Spring Street Presbyterian Church. That same year, he worked with Allen Young to secure funding for and establish the Presbyterian Mission School for Colored Boys and Girls. The school opened in November 1905 with 50 pupils. The boarding school provided educational opportunities for Black people beyond Wake Forest. The school’s private busses allowed children living in rural areas to attend. The Mitchell family’s story reveals the rich legacy of Black education across generations.

Ralph Pearce, Alexander Mitchell, and Nathanial are just a few examples of countless Black folk who saw schools as sites of safety immediately after the Civil War and in the Jim Crow South. They successfully created schools that offered Black children a promising future. As WFU’s Slavery Race and Memory Project continues to understand the anti-Black violence fostered in the wake of academic expansion, it should also study the moments and places where Black people thrived, triumphed, and resisted the violence and oppression of white supremacy. I hope that my research can contribute to and supplement this project.