Attractive Statesville

Local History Notes

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

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Dec 23

African American Statesville History

Posted on December 23, 2019 at 3:39 PM by Jenny Levins

I was discussing the recent elections with a friend a few weeks ago when he stopped and thought for a moment and said, “You know I never really thought I would live to see a black President in this country.”  To be honest I didn’t either. Of course, I didn’t think growing up that I would ever live to see communism fall and the Soviet Union break up, or apartheid banished in South Africa either, but it all happened. I believe the Roman philosopher Cicero hit the nail on the head sometime before 43 BC when he said, “While there’s life, there’s hope.”

The Iredell County Public Library’s Youth Service Department will be celebrating Black History Month Saturday, Feb. 28, with a special program featuring a lecture by Kenneth Fletcher. The program will be on “African and African American Heroes.”  Mr. Fletcher has s B.A. in African Studies and World History from Buffalo State College. The program is free and will be held in the Youth Services Program Room at the library from 3 to 4 p.m. Iredell County has its own group of African American heroes to be proud of. Their efforts helped improve the lives of everyone living here today. 

Monroe Nathan Work was born in Iredell County August 15, 1866 to a family of recently freed slaves. After the Civil War his father relocated the family to the North seeking better opportunities. Monroe graduated college and later became the Director of the Department of Records and Research at Tuskegee Institute. He became a world-famous authority on information and statistics concerning African-Americans. His research and published data helped advance black civil rights and brought fame to Tuskegee.  

Mary Charlton Holliday served as the supervisor over black schools in Iredell County for over 40 years. She was born in Pulaski, Virginia and was a graduate of the Hampton Institute. She came to Iredell County as a Jeannes School Supervisor in 1915 and took over the black schools. She was instrumental in acquiring funding from the Rosenwald Foundation for the construction of new black schools in the county. 

Selma Burke was born in Mooresville and became an internationally known sculptor and art instructor. In 1943 she was selected to create a bas-relief sculpture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt which now hangs at the Recorder of Records office in Washington. It was unveiled by Mrs. Burke and President Harry S. Truman after Roosevelt’s death. A similar bas-relief that Selma Burke created of Mary Charlton Holliday hangs in the Local History room at the Iredell County Public Library.

James Robert Walker was a poet, public school principal and for many years a vocational agriculture teacher in several N.C. counties including Iredell, Rowan, and Wilkes. He was born in Henderson, Ky., on Jan 10, 1885, but spent most of his life in Iredell County. He retired from teaching in 1948 and was an instructor of the Farm Program of the Veterans Administration from 1943-1953. His books of poetry include, “Practical Diets,” Be Firm My Hope,” “Menus of Love,” “Speak Nature,” and “Musings of Childhood.” 

Rev. Wilson W. Lee of Statesville was an early Black Civil Rights Activist and is often referred to today as Iredell County’s own version of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was born in Woodville in Bertie County, N.C. on May 4, 1917 and graduated from Perquimans County schools. He went on to receive his Bachelor of Science degree from Shaw University in Raleigh, and a Master of Arts in divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa.  Lee came to Statesville after receiving his ministerial appointment to St. John Baptist Church in Statesville where he served as the pastor for 39 years. On Aug. 19, 1979, Shaw University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters Degree.  He was an Army veteran of World War II and served with the U.S. Merchant Marines both prior to and following his active military service. He was president of North Carolinians against Racist and Religious Violence and a member of the NAACP.  Wilson W. Lee Boulevard in Statesville was named in his honor in 1991. 

Other notable African-Americans in Iredell County include Jaunita Stokes who became the Black Home Demonstration Agent for the county’s Agriculture Department in 1945. Mrs. M.H. Harrington was the first black woman to run for a seat on the city council of Statesville in 1959. David Meachem was the first African-American to head the Statesville Housing Authority in 1989. A.E. Peterson became the first black Statesville City Council member on July 1, 1985. James Campbell started Campbell Cleaners and Shirt Laundry in Troutman in 1945. Statesville’s first black policeman was Parker Carlton McClelland hired in 1949. Emma Campbell was Statesville’s first black insurance agent. 

Marvin Norman was the first minority to be elected to the Iredell County Board of Commissioners and its first black chairman. B.J. Abernathy was the first black dentist in town. Early black doctors in Statesville were Dr. W.J. Bryan, Dr. Robert Holliday (husband of Mary Charlton), Dr. Alonzo Lord, and Dr. Bryant. Anne (White) Awana was the first minority to work as a secretary followed by Maxine Rutledge. Elam C. Lackey became the first black county agent in 1925. O.M Pharr was the first black principal of Unity High School. Will McLelland is thought to be the first black funeral director in Statesville while Morrison & Bryant Funeral Home established in 1963 was the first black funeral home in Mooresville. Barbers were some of the early black businessmen to establish themselves in Statesville. Among the early ones around 1910 were Joe White, Harvey L. Murphy, John Murphy, Sharpe Gray, and William Littlejohn. 

The Big Read Grand Finale will be held this Saturday, March 1, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. at the Iredell County Public Library in Statesville. Emceeing the event will be “Billy Buck” Blevins from WSIC Radio 1400 AM. Names of the winners of the middle school and high school “To Kill a Mockingbird” essay, poetry, arts, and trivia contests will be announced. A special slide show of pictures from various Big Read events will be shown and various community leaders will speak on what the Big Read project has meant to Iredell County. The Big Read Grand Finale will feature refreshments and an opportunity for those who read the book to meet and socialize. 

Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library

This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Black community has long legacy in Iredell” on Feb. 25, 2009