To Glenda Gilmore, scholar, teacher and activist,
in honor of her retirement from Yale University
I found the letter in the W. E. B. Du Bois Papers at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst. It was dated 22 April 1918 and was from Miss Mary C. Euell of Wilson, N.C. She had written the great African American scholar and activist to tell him about “my trouble here in Wilson.”
She was not kidding about being in trouble. Miss Euell was a black teacher at the Wilson Colored Graded School and her white school superintendent had slapped her. They had apparently argued over a school policy on the starting and closing times for the school day.
As one might expect, the argument was indicative of a larger breech between the school’s teachers and the superintendent.
What’s certain is this: the incident nearly provoked a race riot, led to Euell and 11 of the school’s other teachers (all black, of course) resigning in protest, the abandonment of the school by hundreds of black families whose children were enrolled in the school, and the founding of a new private school for black students led by those teachers and their parents.
Miss Euell was not playing, either. She pressed charges against the white superintendent and took him to court for assault.
In announcing their resignation, the black teachers also singled out the school’s African-American principal, J. D. Reid. He had witnessed the incident, but in their eyes had sided with the white superintendent.
In the words of a New York newspaper, the black teachers felt that Principal Reid had failed to protect “Negro womanhood.”
The slapping of Miss Euell was the last straw for the teachers. In their letter of resignation, dated 19 April 1918, they referred to Principal Reid’s “high handed, ironclad and abusive rule.”
They also wrote:
“We, the undersigned teachers of the Wilson Colored Graded School who have tried in every way to help him, but in return have only been treated as a chain-gang crew under criminal offense, have lost respect for the above mentioned principal, J.D. Reid, and tender our resignation.”
Supported by small fees, community fundraisers and local donations, the new Wilson Independent School had 600 students within a year and remained open for approximately a decade.
By writing Dr. Du Bois, Miss Euell assured that her “trouble here in Wilson” would not remain a local story. The NAACP’s influential magazine, The Crisis, which Du Bois edited, covered the incident. After reading about it in The Crisis, black newspaper editors across the country ran stories in their newspapers and magazines.
The year 1918 was a hard time for human rights in eastern North Carolina. Jim Crow was the law of the land. Women did not have the right to vote, and neither did most black citizens. Labor activists met with harsh reprisals.
The pervasiveness of that oppression was so great that sometimes I forget that there were many people, like Miss Mary C. Euell, who stood up to it.
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Special thanks to Lisa Y. Henderson and her incredibly interesting, thoughtful and rigorous blog on African American history and genealogy in Wilson, N.C. You can find a link to her blog “Black Wide-Awake” here.
I found Ms. Henderson’s blog entries on this incident as soon as I began looking for historical background to Dr. Du Bois’s letter. She has not only done excellent research and found many historical sources on the incident, but she has dedicated herself to re-publishing and updating the story on every April 9th, the anniversary of the teachers’ resignation.
Ms. Henderson recently honored the 100thanniversary of the “Wilson School Boycott” on her blog.
In that blog post, she wrote:
“The school boycott is largely forgotten in Wilson, and its heroes go unsung. In their honor, today, and every April 9 henceforth, I publish links to these Black Wide-Awake posts chronicling the walk-out and its aftermath. Please read and share and speak the names of Mary C. Euell and the revolutionary teachers of the Colored Graded School.”