(Article by Michael E.C. Gery, Editor)
Carolina Country Magazine of NC's
Touchstone Energy Cooperatives
Peserving the spirit and legacy of the Warren County Training School:
In the early 1950s when Frank D. Hendrick was a student at Warren County Training school, his teachers encouraged him to continue his education past high school. "They said I should go on to med school," Mr. Hendrick said,"Well, I didn't even know what med school was!" He pursued his education anyway at Norfolk State and then Virgnia State universities and a career in educational administration, teaching and government in Virginia. Today he is retired, and as president of the Warren County Training School/North Warren High School Alumni Association, he is bound and determined to give something back to the school and community that served him well.
"The key concept is to recognize the inspiration that we received here," Mr. Hendrick said recently at an alumni meeting inside the school's former cafeteria. "It's to recognize the heritage of this school, the culture that was established here for many years to benefit the black people of this area."
He's talking about a $3 million project that would preserve and restore the Warren County Training School buildings and grounds as a beacon for cultural enrichment in the communities that surround it.
Charles Jefferson, who graduated with Mr. Hendrick in 1955, had a similar experience. He attended elementary school in a one-room schoolhouse where Marie Hawkins Thomas taught all six grades. After high school, he went into the U.S. Air Force, "and I was proud and blessed to wear that uniform back here to Warren County Training School." After attending the Norfolk division of Virginia State College, he moved to New York and a career with New York state government. Now he's retired and returning his energy to the old school. He serves as the alumni association's caretaker.
Doris Terry Williams ('69) and Larry Sledge ('67) attended school here during the times just before public schools were racially integrated. Today they are grateful for the attention the black teachers paid to students like them. Ms. Williams, who works with the Rural School and Community Trust and whose mother graduated from WCTS in 1935, went on to earn advanced degrees at North Carolina Central and Duke universities. "Many parents of these students did not go to school," says Doris Williams. "But they knew that education was the only thing that would help their children. The teachers here knew that what you brought to the table was all you had, and they pushed you to do better no matter what your level was. That was the culture here. We hope to preserve that legacy and recapture those priorities."
"They taught boys to become young men," Larry Sledge said, "and girls to become young women. The communities and neighborhoods had a religious base, they looked after all the families, and the school was part of that culture. Your learning did not stop at the school. The touching of hearts, learning right from wrong, learning respect, it all made a significant difference in who we are today, to be a valuable asset to society. We are trying to bring back that spirit that somehow got lost."
Warren County Training School has its roots here in the countryside near the Virginia border. There was the Flat Rock elementary school of the early 1900s, then the Wise Colored School known as the Yellow School in the Wise community. After the Yellow School burned, the Julius Rosenwald Fund helped the community build what became Warren County Training School in 1921. Mr. Rosenwald was a Chicago philanthropist and president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. The Rosenwald Fund in that era supported hundreds of schools for black communities. The first Rosenwald School here was destroyed in a 1931 tornado. Later that year, the fund helped erect the brick building that remains today.
Gillis E. Cheek led the effort to build the school and was its principal. Known as 'Fesser Cheek, he was a Baptist minister and tireless advocate for civil rights. He reached out to families far and wide to bring children to remote north Warren County to be educated. Students lived with the Cheek family, with local families and in separate girls and boys dormitories on the school’s grounds. He supervised the school farm and canning operation that produced food for lunches and suppers. He was strict, but the children loved him,” said Elizabeth Baskerville (’36), who remembers him. He was known not to compromise when it came to granting blacks equal standing with their white neighbors. His work in promoting voting privileges caused him to lose his job at the school in 1941.
The Rev. George Haywood Washington succeeded ‘Fesser Cheek and was responsible over the next 27 years for molding the character of countless men and women who would go on to become leaders and professionals throughout the nation and the world. “Pops” Washington was ever-present. You could not escape his watchful eye. You knew immediately not only when you stepped out of line but also why you did. And you learned right away that you’d not step out of line again. It was a time when black schools had to be self-sufficient, to supplement whatever support they received from the county system. They sold candy to raise money to hire a new teacher. They used donated vehicles, donated musical instruments, and donated costumes for theater performances. “Society and government set a separate cultural and educational agenda for these schools,” says Larry Sledge. “The schools had to come up with their own resources. And they did.”
They did because of devoted visionaries like G.H. Washington. At a time when the segregated black schools had no transportation and relied on used textbooks discarded by the white schools, Mr. Washington attracted devoted teachers and succeeded in constructing a new agriculture building, a cafeteria and a new elementary school with 17 teachers. Like many school systems, Warren County’s moved slowly to integrate the schools in the mid-1960s. After Doris Terry Williams’ class graduated in 1969, the system closed what was by then called North Warren High School, and the students were assigned to what had been all-white schools. “Then there were no black schools at all,” Ms. Williams says. “Those schools had been the center of the community. Then all of a sudden the black communities lost them and their leaders as well. They didn’t have their coaches. The principals became assistant principals in charge of discipline at what had been the white schools.” An atmosphere of fear had replaced one of encouragement, fellowship and inspiration.
The main aim of the Warren County Training School’s alumni is to restore the level of encouragement, fellowship and inspiration that had been instilled in them as students. Restoring the building and grounds is a means of keeping them focused on the goal.
"There's Nothing I can't Do:"
Richard Henderson grew up on a farm in the 1940s, and his father insisted that he get an education, beginning at Piney Grove elementary. Clara Boyd was his age and grew up nearby the seventh of 12 children. She attended Burgess Chapel elementary, a two-room school where teachers held classes in different corners of the rooms. When Richard and Clara reached 7th grade they attended Warren County Training School. Recalling Clara then, Richard say, "every time I had a class with her, she moved to another class. Usually the young ladies wanted to sit next to me!" In order to get her attention, Richard nominated Clara as Homecoming Queen, and she won. That may have had something to do with her willingness to marry him later.
Mr. Henderson went on to Hampton Institute then returned to his family farm. "My daddy told me to go back to school," he said. So he joined the U.S. Air Force and earned more college credits. Meanwhile, Clara Boyd had graduated from high school and North Carolina College (now N.C. Central University) in Durham. Professional opportunities for educated African Americans in North Carolina were slim in those days, so like many fellow WCTS graduates, both Richard and Clara tried their luck up north. Mrs. Henderson worked as a nurse for 31 years while raising three sons. Mr. Henderson worked with the U.S. Postal Service, then for 21 years with the New York Police Department. Along the way, he received his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees and was called to the ministry. Today he is a pastor in Vance County and chaplain of the alumni association.
"Every time I made a step higher," says Richard Henderson, "my thoughts came back to Warren County Training School and Pops Washington and my teachers here. He brought some good people here to teach us, and they made many good people who went out into the world and accomplished something." Clara Henderson recalls her high school teachers instilling in her the idea that "whatever we want in life, we have to work for it."
Maggie Dunston Kiah attended WCTS when Gillis Cheek ran it. "I liked school so much I cried when I couldn't go," she remembers. Cheek worked to get her a scholarship to North Carolina College for Negroes (NC Central) where she studied dietetics. She pursued her education at Howard University in Washington, DC, then she, too, moved to New York City and became the city's chief dietician. She taught school for 16 years before retiring to Warren County, where she soon returned to work as the county's public health nutritionist. "I will never forget the kindness and attention I received at this school. This is where I got my start for three wonderful careers."
Stories like Maggie, Kiah's and Clara Henderson's come from dozens of WCTS alumni. Ethelene Russell Hughey was raised by several family members, including aunts and uncles. "It does take a village to raise a child," she said. "What I learned from them and at this school is that there is nothing you can't do. Thanks to that I have accomplished everything I put my hand to." She remembered the generous spirit of her teacher Bertha Washington as well as the math and home room teacher Susie Love Knight. "I didn't like math at all," she recalled, "but she had a way that she could teach you math." Ms. Hughey graduated in 1961 and was hired by the U.S. Department of Education as a professional position there. (Ms. Hughey, who was alumni association treasurer, passed away unexpectedly not long after she was interviewed for this story.)
Along with reading, writing and arithmetic, they remember learning how to behave. If they wronged someone, Mr. Washington taught them to recognize it and to apologize. When one boy yelled "Fire" during a movie, Mr. Washington singled him out and disciplined him. For the Sweethearts Ball, the Junior-Senior Prom, for plays and performances, students learned how to dress, escort a date, walk gracefully and usher guests. They learned how to manage a farm. They learned sportsmanship. They learned how to run a kitchen, set a table and eat properly.
Restoring the Core Values:
The Warren County Training School alumni association was formed 24 years ago not only to keep alumni in touch with each other but also to revive the spirit of the school itself. The association has nearly 1,000 members and maintains active chapters in Philadelphia, New York, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. They purchased the school buildings and grounds. They began the $2.5 million campaign for restoring the main school building that recently was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. They set up a health and wellness program for the local community as well as senior citizens and veterans progams. They meet monthly in the cafeteria builing that they themselves renovated not long ago. They conduct periodic fundraisers and workbees on the grounds. They established a scholarship fund which has awarded more than $45,000 to worthy graduates of today's Warren County High School.
Frank Hendrick, the association's president, speaks of his father and uncle who attended the school as boarders in its early years. His grandmother, who raised him, so revered the foundation of the school that she named Mr. Hendrick's father "Julius," probably to honor Julius Rosenwald.
"We remain under the watchful eye of this school," he says. "That's how strong it is. We feel a need to perpetuate the culture that developed here, the core values we learned here. We feel a need especially at this time to return those values to this community."
As if to demonstrate that such a drive can succeed, the son of Larry Sledge is a board member of the alumni association. Prince Sledge graduated from Warren County High School in 2002 and, as the first recipient of the Cheek-Washington Scholarship, he studies English at Elizabeth City State University. "My family, my teachers, these alumni," he said at an association meeting recently, "having inspired me all along to do my best, to go on to other accomplishments. I appreciate being a part of this family."