Our History is a regular column by Kate Rauhauser-Smith, Director of Education and Programs at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, examining the region’s history on display at the museum.
As we finish another school year, watch our graduates cross the stage to collect diplomas or wonder when the children we just sent off to first grade turned in to computer geniuses, I’m drawn to the museum’s education exhibit on the third floor.
While education has always been valued by some, “book learning” was seen as an unnecessary distraction by others in America’s first centuries. This was especially true in rural and back country regions where every member of the family worked the fields. Of course, whether it was valued or not, education wasn’t always available or affordable.
By the mid- to late-19th century illiteracy was seen as a barrier to success for entire communities, particularly in the South where “four years of cruel war” had set school advancement back even further. In 1870 fully 20 percent of the U.S. population (34 percent in the South) could not read or write. For African-Americans it was 80 percent. In 1890 North Carolina had the highest illiteracy rate among whites in the country and one of the lowest school attendance rates. Editors of the Mount Airy News, ministers, and many civic leaders campaigned hard to improve educational opportunities for the region’s children.
In 1913 the state made school attendance compulsory to the age of 14 and the tide turned.
“Graded schools were established in the towns, men…helped create a wholesome sentiment in the interest of universal education,” wrote E.H. Wrenn for the “Surry County Progress Edition” of the Mount Airy News published June 1, 1916. As chairman of the Surry County School Board he touted the advances made since the Civil War; 160 well-maintained schoolhouses, 49 with more than one teacher and the fact that “There is no longer a log school house in the County, not even in the mountain fastnesses.”
Schools were segregated until 1966 and there were many fewer for black children but we know there were several in the county before 1900. The classes were packed but often in poor condition and under-supplied. Some teachers struggled with their own inadequate education.
Then, in 1914, John Jarvis Jones, better known as JJ Jones, was hired. He and his wife, Ora, were both well-educated teachers with experience. They moved to Mount Airy and became the principal and two of the three teachers in the Virginia Street Elementary School.
Though they and their children would leave a lasting impact on education in Surry County both came from illiterate families. It’s difficult to be sure but it is likely JJ and Ora’s parents were all born into slavery near Wentworth, Rockingham County. Their families lived near each other in the 1870 and 1880 census records.
Like many former slaves, JJ’s parents Rawleigh and Lucinda Jones never learned to read or write but they made sure their children did. Monroe and Leslie Ellington, Ora’s parents, were recorded in the 1870 census as able to read but not write. By 1880, they could also write as could every one of their family members. Both families recognized education was a vital skill necessary to bettering their lives.
JJ and Ora imbued that certainty in their children and their students. They taught Latin and algebra and encouraged their students to go on to high school even though it meant leaving the area. But many did.
Finally, in 1935-36, the Mount Airy Colored High School opened and the second generation of Jones educators entered the scene. JJ and Ora’s son Leonidas taught and served as principal of the high school 30 years. Following in his parents’ footsteps he also married a teacher, Eleanor, who taught and coached here for 40 years. They oversaw the building of a 10-room brick school north of town which opened in 1941. Eventually the school was renamed the JJ Jones High School.
Though desegregation in 1966 made the school unnecessary, the building continues to serve the needs of the community housing YVEDDI offices, a pre-school, daycare, foodbank, continuing education services, and the polling station for that precinct. The ground-breaking educator is still memorialized in the name of the JJ Jones Intermediate School. His son is remembered in the name of the building he helped create now known as the LH Jones Family Resource Center.
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the Director of Education and Programs for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228