One of the most important buildings in Johnston County is a rental house today but was once part of a wounded nation’s first step out of slavery and war.
On Fourth Street, two doors down from First Missionary Baptist Church in Smithfield, a long gray house with a screened-in front porch began its life more than 150 years ago as the first school for freed slaves in Johnston County. That it stands today is a perhaps miracle, as the building is believed to be the only remaining Freedman’s Bureau school in North Carolina.
Smithfield was an occupied town during Reconstruction, Johnston County Heritage Center director Todd Johnson said, and while Union troops were still on the streets, a national effort was under way to educate the free black men and women in the South. The American Missionary Association was one of the groups leading the effort.
“People realized that it was one thing to give people freedom but another to empower them to live independently,” Johnson said. “To know if they were being cheated or not, to know math and how to read and write.”
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In 1866, three years after emancipation and one after the Civil War ended, a white Maine school teacher named Susan Hayes traveled to Smithfield and bought a plot of land on Fourth Street, the spot where First Missionary Baptist Church now stands. She raised the money for the school herself, collecting donations from friends and relatives in the North, and by 1869, the first school for free blacks was up and running in Johnston County.
It was a two-room schoolhouse with two dozen chairs. Johnson said a letter from Hayes detailed the building’s dimensions as 24 by 48 feet. More than a century later, as Johnson toured the building with someone from the state historic preservation office a few years ago, they found the original structure matching those dimensions exactly.
The building was eventually moved a couple of lots over to where it exists today, and Johnson said it was used as a school until 1913. In those nearly 50 years, Johnson said, the school taught black and a few white students, all paying a small tuition, as public schools were not a viable option at the time. While the building remains, its history is not well known, Johnson said. It has existed as a private home for most of its life.
“It’s a very rare thing,” Johnson said. “It’s the only one we know of in North Carolina and one of very few in the country. Many were masked as dwellings and lost their story. The one here was basically forgotten about.”
The Sanders family lived in and owned the school building for most of its life, growing up in it and knowing it as their home place. Johnson said some knowledge of the school’s origins must have kept its beams and nails together.
“I think maybe the previous generation knew it was something that should be saved,” Johnson said. “It could have been neglected. I do believe the knowledge of being a former schoolhouse saved it.”
The next chapter of the school lies in the hands of First Missionary, which bought it last year and ties its earliest days to the building as well. Carolyn Ennis, a member of the church’s trustee committee, said preservation is first and foremost in the church’s mind, though how that might be accomplished is still up in the air.
“Our church grew out of that schoolhouse,” Ennis said. “It’s very significant to us as it’s the roots of our church.”
Whether through grants or local or private funding, Ennis said the eventual goal is protecting the building and see to its long-term survival and recognition as a point of major social progress.
“The school is really significant as a landmark and memorial to the beginning of education for free black people,” Ennis said. She said her husband’s great-great-grandfather attended the school as a 61-year-old.