Citizen Green: A keeper of High Point’s black education history

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

When Glenn Chavis and I talk on the phone, the conversation usually veers to some or other inaccuracy in the historical record as it pertains to African Americans in High Point. As often as not, the perpetrator is a lazy reporter.

Probably the most egregious is the fiction that jazz luminaries Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstein performed at the club attached to the Kilby Hotel, which collapsed during a storm in 2014 while under a condemnation order from the city of High Point.

It’s nothing more than fanciful speculation, a rumor elevated to gospel through repetition by credulous reporters. Despite Chavis’ tireless efforts to correct the record, it is a myth that refuses to die. The inaccuracy has been dignified with publication as recently as September, when it cropped up in a News & Record article about the loss of another building important to the history of black High Point — First Baptist Church.

Chavis challenged me when I was writing about efforts to save the Kilby in October 2013. Didn’t I think that if such famous entertainers had performed at the club, someone would at least be able to produce a newspaper advertisement, he asked at the time, adding that there’s not one shred of evidence to back up the claim? Chavis did discover through his research that Geechee Robinson & his Band and Hartley Toots & his Orchestra played at the hotel club.

Now, that sounds like a story.

A High Point native who went to work as a fingerprint technician for the FBI after graduating with a bachelor’s in English from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, Chavis brought a forensic approach to history when he took up the avocation after retiring from Abbott Laboratories in 2000. His historical research is comprehensive with an emphasis on the many strands of human endeavors that have shaped the black community in High Point, as opposed to a series of highlights on great men and women. The result of that work was Our Roots, Our Branches, Our Fruit, High Point’s Black History… 1859-1960, published in 2010. Chavis has written that his mission is “to find, document, and make known the history and contributions of High Point’s African-American community that has been long overlooked.”

Over the weekend, I picked up a copy of his most recent volume that he left for me at the Heritage Research Center at the High Point Public Library.Similar in format to the first volume but with a focus on education, the title of the book is Our Roots, Our Branches, Our Fruit, Black Schools of High Point & Surrounding Area… 1868-1968. The story begins with the founding of one or more freedmen’s schools — the historical record is unclear on the exact number — after the Civil War and ends with the closing of William Penn High School when public schools across the state finally desegregated.

For someone looking for a reference to an ancestor who taught at or attended one of the freedmen schools, High Point Normal & Industrial Institute, William Penn High School or Fairview School, the granular detail of this book, including rosters of names and details of commencement exercises, will be invaluable.

Beyond any personal connection readers may have with the teachers and students, stray details provide an experiential texture of black education in High Point. For example, the commencement program for High Point Normal & Industrial Institute in May 1901 included a talk by Nathan R. Roberts on the topic of “Agriculture as a Base” and vocal solo of “The Amorous Gold Fish” by Nettie L. Brown. The following year, according to Chavis’ research, Gov. Charles B. Aycock and Charles McIver, the president of what is now UNCG, visited the school. That Aycock was both an architect of white supremacy and a champion of public education goes unremarked in Chavis’ account.

He’s less sparing in discussing educational discrimination by the city of High Point. Drawing from city council minutes, Chavis reports that city council voted in 1915 to pay teachers at High Point Colored School $12.50 to $15 per month, while Principal Ossie Davis received $5. Yes, you read that right: $5 per month.

In contrast, teachers at four white schools received salaries ranging from $45 to $55 per month while their principals earned from $70 to $150. With supplemental pay from the Society of Friends of New York, the black teachers still received only $25-$27.50 per month, with Principal Davis earning $30 per month — less than half of what their white counterparts earned.

“To add insult to injury,” Chavis writes, the city council “even contracted to pay an allowance of $5 per month to cover a janitor’s salary. It is hard to fathom that sworn officials would place the same value on the education of High Point’s black youth at the same level of someone hired to clean the school. This showed a total disrespect for educated blacks that were trying to help educate a people that had been denied what their hard-earned tax dollars entitled them to receive — an education.”

  • Ann Miller woodford

    Very enlightening, Jordan. My cousin Glenn Chavis is a highly educated and skilled researcher whom I am proud to know. His work is amazing. It will be treasured even more than it is right now as time passes. The African American history – especially in small southern towns – is being lost every day, as our elder oral historians pass away. Kudos to Glenn Chavis for putting Black history in writing, and thank you!