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Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Dec 23

African American School History in Iredell County

Posted on December 23, 2019 at 3:37 PM by Jenny Levins

The Iredell County Public Library hosted Iredell County educator and local historian Phyllis Bailey on Feb. 18, 2014 for a program on “The History of Black Schools in Iredell County” as part of Black History Month.  This free program focused on the development of black schools and education in Iredell County and included rare photographs of many of the early schools. Burgess Bailey also helped lead the discussion which included memories from the audience of their own experiences in school. On Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, Phyllis Bailey also presented a program at the Harmony Library titled, “Reflections on Black History in the North Iredell Area.” 

The first Federal census to list African-Americans was in 1870. Prior to the end of the Civil War in 1865 there are few records available as the majority of black people in the area were slaves. An excellent resource for slave information has been made available by Matt McCall and his staff at the Iredell County Register of Deeds. They have indexed the records in the Deeds office that show the sale of slaves in Iredell County. To view the records go to then click on “Iredell Slave Deed Index” in the left-hand column under Historical Information. These records show both the seller and buyer of the slaves along with the price paid and the first name and approximate age of the slave. 

The early member rolls for Bethany Presbyterian here in Iredell County provides names to slaves who worshiped there. Records also exist for black members listed in church records for the Methodist Episcopal Church South, Salisbury District, Iredell Circuit, 1834-1850. Rev. Sidney S. Murkland left as the minister of Bethany in 1865 to start Freedom Presbyterian Church and Bethany School for the newly freed slaves and Bethany may have been the first school for Blacks in Iredell County. 

Churches and schools were the first institutions organized by the black communities in Iredell County after the war ended in 1865. In 1910 Mrs. E.S. Billingsley gave $1,100 to help build the Billingsley Memorial Academy on South Green Street as a school for black children. The Academy was supported by the Presbyterian Church in the North until it closed in the 1930s due to the depression. African-Americans in Iredell struggled to educate themselves until 1915 when Mary Charlton arrived in Iredell County to supervise the black schools. Miss Charlton was a young black lady from Pulaski, Virginia and a graduate of the Hampton Institute. When she arrived in Iredell County the Black School system consisted of 39 little one-room shacks so poorly constructed that she found students in one sitting at their desks holding umbrellas to keep rain off their books. 

Mary Charlton became Iredell’s first Jeanes School Supervisor with her salary coming from the Jeanes Foundation. The Foundation was created by Miss Anna T. Jeanes, a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker whose foundation poured millions into salaries for black teachers in southern schools. Mary later married Statesville physician Dr. Robert S. Holliday in 1918 and Mary Charlton Holliday served as the supervisor over the Black schools in Iredell County for the next forty years until she retired in 1956. Mrs. Holliday received grant money from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation and was able to build new schools and consolidate the 39 buildings down to 11.  She was honored upon her retirement with a special plaque created by Iredell County artist Selma Burke.  The plaque hung in the entrance to Unity High School for many years and now hangs in the Local History Department at the Iredell County Public Library.

Unity High School opened in Iredell County as the county’s black high school in 1941 with O.M Pharr as principal.  It was located on Salisbury Road in the Belmont Community in east Iredell.  The school opened with 13 teachers including Principal Pharr.  It had no gym, auditorium, cafeteria, or even an adequate library when it opened.  A fleet of buses traveled all over the county taking some kids both to and from school in the dark. It would soon have the largest enrollment of any school in the county. Unity closed in 1970 with LeRoy Campbell serving as its last principal. 

Morningside High School was the black high school serving the city of Statesville. It began in 1891 in a two-room building known as the Colored Free School. In 1915 fire destroyed the school and for the next six years students were taught in churches and fraternal halls. In 1921 a new building was erected on Green Street near Garfield and named Morningside High School by its first principal, Charles W. Foushee. Morningside closed as a high school along with Unity as Iredell County schools were integrated. Morningside held its last graduating class on May 30, 1968. It continued as an integrated school teaching the lower grades and was renamed the Alan D. Rutherford School in 1971 in honor of the former principal and school administrator.  

Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library

This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Programs to focus on history of Iredell’s black schools” on Feb. 15, 2014