Robeson County African Americans
This is a brief look of some of the African Americans that played a large role in the history of Robeson County. The stories and photographs were gathered from many sources and only present a brief slice of their lives. I documented them in my books Images of American – Robeson County and Images of America – Lumberton. Take time to remember these leaders and record your memories of them and of other leaders that played a part in the history of the county and of your lives.
Alexander Hill Thompson was born a slave on June 28, 1828, to the Reverend Alexander A. Thompson and his wife, Margaret. Following the lead of his preacher father, Thompson grew up to be a preacher, educator, community organizer, and also the progenitor of 27 children by two wives. In 1877, he was one of the two founders of the Lumber River Baptist Association, which grew out of the Grey’s Creek Association. The Lumber River Missionary Baptist Association was organized in Fair Bluff, North Carolina. The minutes of the Grey’s Association show that E.M. Thompson and A.H. Thompson led the way. The association was started to teach the Bible to ministers, who recognized the importance of education for the black population. In 1881, they acquired land and started a school, naming it the Thompson Institute in honor of Alexander H. Thompson and his leadership. The Lake Waccamaw Association donated most of the money, about $l,000. There were three buildings, and Reverend Thompson was the leader while it was a religious school. In 1900, when the institute became specifically an educational institution, the Reverend J. Avery became the first principal, serving two years. Several short-term principals followed until, in 1912, the Rev. W.H. Knuckles became principal and served until 1942. (Courtesy of the Thompson Collection, Robeson Remembers, Robeson County History Museum.)
William Henry Knuckles graduated from Shaw University. He came to Lumberton in 1912 to take a position as principal at the Thompson Institute. The original institute was one building, but by 1921, under the administration of Dr. Knuckles, there were five buildings. The main complex—a three-story brick structure with wooden columns—housed dining facilities, classrooms, and living quarters for teachers and students. Under the leadership of Dr. Knuckles, the school attracted students from many of the nearby counties and from several states, some from as far away as New York. Most of the African American teachers employed in the local schools were graduates of the Thompson Institute. Dr. Knuckles passed away in 1942, and W.H. Knuckles Elementary was named in his honor as a lasting memorial. (Courtesy of Knuckles School.)
Anne T. Jeanes founded the Jeanes Foundation to train African American educators to teach African American children. Ethel Thompson arrived by train in Lumberton in the 1920s; she had been selected to work as a Jeanes supervisor in Robeson County. Her role was to assist the African American population in their educational objectives, but she found herself a record keeper of black, white, and Indian schools from the 1920s to the 1940s. She developed curricula, recruited and nurtured teachers, and reported on teacher development and student enrollment. Dr. J.H. Hayswood, the pastor of Bethany United Presbyterian Church and an avid educator in his own right, began courting her. The couple married, and though they had no natural offspring, they opened their home to eight children who lived with them at various times. It was understood that all eight would attend college, and they did. Pictured from left to right are Ethel Thompson Hayswood, Annie T. Holland, and Mame Holiday. (Courtesy of the Hayswood Collection, Robeson Remembers, Robeson County
William McKinley McNeill was a local instructor who taught at the Redstone High School. He began teaching there in the mid-1930s. Better known as “Prof” by his students, he wore many hats. McNeill taught math, chemistry, physics and physical education. He coached three sports—football, basketball, and baseball —and served as assistant principal when Dr. John H. Hayswood had to be away from school. McNeill arrived at school at 7:30 a.m. and usually left around 6 in the evening. When his mentor, Dr. Hayswood, retired, the Lumberton School Board named the newly constructed school in his honor and appointed McNeil as principal. At the Hayswood School, his students had the first indoor gym. McNeill was able to hire coaches and other teachers to do many of the activities that he had once done alone. McNeill served as principal from 1949 until his death in 1964. (Courtesy McNeill Collection Robeson Remembers, Robeson County History Museum.)
Expert canners Julius E. and Alice Bryan are shown here at their Elizabethtown Road home with their winter supply of canned fruits and vegetables. Canning was a part of everyday life and was essential to feeding a family in the days before refrigeration and supermarkets. This photograph was taken by George W. Ackerman on May 20, 1932. During his almost-40-year career with the US Department of Agriculture, Ackerman took more than 50,000 photographs. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)
Dr. Eugene Burns “E.B.” Turner served as the pastor of First Baptist Church on West Second Street for 57 years with his helpmate and wife, Georgia McNeill. An inspirational leader, he encouraged all citizens, especially African Americans, to find the courage to use their voices to break an oppressive silence. It was upon arriving in Lumberton as a preacher at the age of 22, that he first discovered the harsh living conditions African Americans were forced to endure. There were no paved streets in the black sections of town, and most blacks lived in poor housing with little opportunity for upward movement. In the political field, he was chairman of the Robeson County Democratic Party and served 30 years on the Lumberton City Council before being elected to the Robeson County Board of Commissioners in 1992. He was also on the boards of Lumberton Economic Advancement for Downtown, Inc., the Lumberton Housing Authority, Lumberton Community and Economic Development Committee, Lumberton Commission for Youth and the Family, the Lumberton Visitors Bureau, and Historic Robeson, Inc. (Courtesy of Robeson County History Museum.)
Ida Van Smith knew from her early childhood that she wanted to be a pilot. Her father began taking her to air shows at the old Lumberton airport when she was three years old. She was delighted by barnstorming exhibitions performed by pilots and by the women performing wing- walking stunts on the airplanes. Born in 1917 in Lumberton to Theodore Deland and Martha Jane Larkin, Smith graduated from Red Stone Academy and Shaw University. She earned a master’s degree from Queens College and became a teacher in the New York City Public Schools in the fields of history and special education. In 1967, at the age of 50, she finally fulfilled her personal dream of learning to fly. Once she had her private pilot’s license and instructor rating, Smith founded the Ida Van Smith Flight Club on Long Island, New York. The flight-training club was for minority children to encourage their involvement in aviation and aerospace sciences. Training for the students was provided in an aircraft simulator funded by the Federal Aviation Administration and an operational Cessna 172. Soon, there were more than 20 clubs throughout the country, with members between the ages of 13 and 19. As a result, thousands of children were exposed to aviation, and many pursued related careers. Smith also produced and hosted a cable television show on aviation and taught an introductory aviation course at York College of the City University of New York. (Courtesy of Robeson County History Museum.)
Major Alexander L. Lewis, a Lumberton native, was serving as Post Chaplain of US Army Garrison Fort Hamilton in August 1958 when alerted that he would be leaving for Korea. He was the only African-American holding this type of position in the Army. Lewis had served in combat during in Europe and the Pacific, where he was awarded a bronze and silver star. (Courtesy Historic Robeson, Inc.)
Professor John Truman Peterson became Principal of the Red Springs black school in 1933; this was the year the first high school class graduated. His entire mission was to provide a quality education for Red Springs African American children. On 1 July 1958 the new high school was named in his honor.
While the 1969 integration of the school system the Peterson High School became the Peterson Elementary School. The building was destroyed 28 March 1984 when a tornado ripped through the town. The new Peterson Elementary School was opened for students 2 September 1986. (Courtesy Red Springs Historical Museum)
Dr. Joy Johnson graduated from the Laurinburg Institute and then attended Shaw University. He was called to the First Baptist Church in Fairmont in September 1951. He was active in his community serving as State Secretary of the NAACP, President of the Robeson County Black Caucus and was founder of the African American Cultural Center in Lumberton. He was elected the first black mayor of Fairmont. (Courtesy African American Cultural Center)