SMITHFIELD, N.C. (WNCN) — Historians and educators are hoping a Smithfield house, at one time used to educate freed slaves, will be sold to someone who will restore and preserve the former school.
“It’s a relic,” said local educator Carolyn Ennis. “It’s a memorial. It is that important.”
Ennis and Todd Johnson, the Johnston County Heritage Center executive director, have been uncovering the house’s 150-year history over the last six years.
“The basic, original fabric of the building is still there,” Johnson said. “It just needs some TLC.”
The house, located on North Fourth Street, was built in 1869 as a school for newly freed African-American slaves. “This is one of the earliest school buildings that we know of for African-Americans in our state, in our country,” Johnson said.
Adele Brewer, a white woman in her 20s, came from Connecticut to Smithfield from the American Missionary Association to teach the former slaves along with some poor white students. It was likely the first integrated school in Johnston County.
“Those are the shoulders that we’re still standing on and so many people don’t know that,” Ennis said. “I think we need to understand the past to appreciate the present.”
It was likely Johnston County’s first integrated school. The state took it over in the 1870s and operated it until 1913.
“We are just not aware of very many Freedman’s Bureau schoolhouses left in the United States,” Johnson said. “We’re not aware of another left in North Carolina besides this one.”
Originally the building was 24 feet by 48 feet with 14 windows, divided into two parts by sliding doors.
Until the 1880s, the house sat two doors down where the First Missionary Baptist sits today. Ennis said the house was likely once used as the congregation’s meeting place.
“It set the tone. It started the roots of our education and our religious impact in the community,” Ennis said.
The house, now on the market, is owned by multiple heirs.
“We realized that it might be in jeopardy,” Johnson said. “We needed to start thinking about a plan for preserving it.”
Johnson says he hopes some type of private entity can acquire the house and move it a few blocks away to a town park, located right across the street from an African-American cemetery where several teachers and students from that school are buried.
Johnson said the house could be restored to look like a school again.
Ennis said she hopes the building will be preserved and used as a museum.
The real estate agent who listed the house says the sellers want the house to be preserved.