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Black History

Echoes from the Past: High-schoolers return to work after winter break
Published Tuesday, January 8, 2019
by Staff Reports

SEDALIA, N.C. – If you were a high school student at Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute returning to school after winter break in 1929, generous portions of learning and a fair amount of labor awaited you.

Now called the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum, a state historic site, the institute was the only preparatory school to offer an academic curriculum to African-American students in the nation.

Not only were there classes in English, mathematics, science, civics and history, but electives in physics, chemistry, French and Latin. Founder Charlotte Hawkins Brown broke with tradition of the 1920s and ’30s and offered a classical education that some felt made blacks “above all hard work.”  But in addition to receiving a well-rounded education, students at the residential private school were required to partake in sewing, cooking, physical education, agriculture, manual training or dormitory work, and Bible study.

In 1922, Palmer became the only accredited rural high school in Guilford County for black or white students. Its founder was born Lottie Hawkins in Henderson in 1883. Her family moved to Cambridge., Massachusetts, where she attended Cambridge English High School and Salem State Normal School. In 1901, she accepted a teaching position in North Carolina offered by the American Missionary Association, which was dedicated to helping blacks in the post-Civil War years.

At age 18, Brown arrived to teach at Bethany Congregational Church in Sedalia. The school closed after one year, but Brown was determined to help the young people and open her own school. With help from her benefactor in Cambridge, Alice Freeman Palmer, and others in the north, Palmer Memorial Institute was opened in 1902 as a day and boarding school for black youth.

Palmer Memorial initially was an elementary through high school and followed the mold of industrial education for its students. By 1922, Brown began to move Palmer Memorial to a curriculum that arguably made it the country’s finest preparatory school for African-Americans. The reputation of Palmer and Brown drew students from across the country. By the 1930s, the school discontinued its elementary school program.

At one time, Palmer comprised 300 acres and 14 buildings. All students worked one hour a day to “dignify the toil of the hands.” A few students did extra work on the 120-acre farm to help with expenses. For decades, over 90 percent of Palmer’s students attended college. The school began to decline after Brown’s death in 1961, likely due to the increasing cost of private education and the integration of public schools. Palmer Memorial became a state historic site in 1971.



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