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Education in Southeast North Carolina


This guide identifies collections that relate to education in Southeast North Carolina, from just after the Civil War through the present day. These contain material by those who attended schools in the area, were pivotal to or worked in local education, or who served in political or community positions of influence for the education system. A significant portion covers the New Hanover County school system and the origins of Wilmington College, now UNCW. Content includes correspondence and personal papers, school records, business and political records, education legislation, legal documentation, interviews, photographs, yearbooks and other school memorabilia, reunion information, publications, and athletic statistics.

Southeast North Carolina did not have a formal education system until the 1850s. Prior to this, education throughout the 1700s and early 1800s was largely home-based or sponsored by local religious and society organizations, with students who were predominently white males. Northern families who moved south to farm saw little need for educating their children beyond what was necessary to help run the farm, therefore education was private and more apprenticeship based. By the end of the 1850s, there was more acceptance and an increased push for public schools and state funding. The Union Free School opened in 1857 as a private/public partnership and paved the way for public education in the area. In 1866, Amy Bradley arrived from Maine to teach all poor, uneducated children regardless of race, but she was met with opposition and was only able to teach white children. However, she continued to do much work in service of public education in New Hanover County until her death in 1904.

In 1873, public free schools were officially established. That same year, Williston Grammar School opened under Mary Washington Howe, a Black educator. Though the American Missionary Association had Freedman schools as early as 1865, Williston was the first public school for Black children in Wilmington. Additional Williston schools would be created into the mid-20th century and play a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement in Wilmington. In the early to mid-1900s, the school system expanded into more elementary schools, high schools, and industrial and technical institutes, including two Rosenwald Schools in the more rural part of the region. By the mid-20th century, there were a total of 65 Rosenwald Schools that had existed in the eight county region of Southeast North Carolina. In the 1960s, political and social upheaval around school integration resulted in the desegregation of schools in 1968 and subsequent Wilmington Ten incident in 1971.

Between 1958 and 1979, the area saw seven community colleges open, including Cape Fear Community College in 1958. Wilmington College, now UNC Wilmington, was first established in its initial form as College Center in 1946. It officially opened in 1947 and had its first class graduate in the 1948-1949 school year. In 1956, Wilmington College and the local Black college, Williston College--then part of Williston High School--joined together, though they remained separate until their integration in 1962. Wilmington College was adopted as part of the UNC sytem in July 1969, when it formerly became UNC Wilmington. UNCW has served as the primary university in Southeast North Carolina since, expanding in academic offerings, student population, and campus size.

For further information related to the educational impact of the Civil Rights Movement, the integration of the school system, and the events surrounding the Wilmington Ten, please refer to the Related Guides tab on the left.