Tillman discusses history of black schools

Published 7:25 pm Wednesday, April 14, 2010

When Brookhaven’s Annie Tillman reached the eighth grade, shefound herself alone.

Tillman, a 32-year educator who retired from the Brookhaven SchoolDistrict in 2004, was the only member of her small class who madeit that far at the all-black Pilgrim’s Rest School. It was time tomove on.

For blacks, Brookhaven’s Alexander High School was the onlychoice.

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“Back then, unless you were in the city school system, you had tostay at your school until you finished eighth grade. I wrote Mr.(A.A.) Alexander and asked him if I could attend, and he wrote meback and I said I could,” Tillman said.

AHS has long since been integrated and now serves the city schooldistrict as Alexander Junior High School. Pilgrim’s Rest School wasswept up in consolidation and abandoned long ago, though thebuilding still stands on Highway 583.

The times have changed, but Tillman remembers them well.

Speaking to a meeting of the Lincoln County Historical andGenealogical Society Tuesday night, she gave a short history ofrural Negro Schools in Lincoln County based on her own research.Like all early rural schools, black schools were scattered,numerous and community-oriented.

“In the county there were many community schools. Basically, everychurch had its own little school,” Tillman said. “Most of them onlywent to the eighth grade, and once you passed the eighth grade youhad to move on somewhere else. Back then it was Alexander.”

By transferring to AHS, Tillman was afforded new educationopportunities, but the transportation was tough. Her father woulddrive her into town in the mornings, and when school was out she’dcatch a bus that took her as far as Hog Chain. From there, it was atwo-mile walk through the woods to get home.

Later on, Tillman had to make the two-mile walk twice a day to getback and forth to Alexander. The district didn’t extend its busesto transport black students, causing many to drop out. Others werelucky enough to make arrangements to stay with families inBrookhaven and journey back to their homes in the county on theweekends.

Tillman walked.

“In those days you got to school as best you could,” shesaid.

The story was basically the same for the students of all LincolnCounty’s black schools, and there were many – Damascus, Topisaw,Norfield, New Hope, Antioch, Mt. Moriah and more. Tillman said mostof the schools had five to 10 students per grade and were staffedby a single teacher, sometimes two.

Eventually, the small community schools were consolidated intothree major black schools – Progress High School, Friendship HighSchool and Lincoln County Training School.

Friendship was one of the oldest schools, Tillman said, and existedprior to consolidation. Lincoln County Training School was built in1924 with money donated by Sears, Roebuck and Co., and servedsouthern Lincoln County. Several schools in the northwest area ofthe county joined to form Progress, which was built in 1950 and sawits first class attend in 1951.

In 1958, construction began on Eva Harris School in Brookhaven, andsoon all three black consolidated county schools were combinedthere. The first class graduated in 1961, and later that year partsof the county were annexed into the Brookhaven district, extendedtransportation to black students for the first time.

It was too late for Tillman, who had already graduated walking.