The history of African-Americans in Wilkes County was explored during an hour and half long presentation at the Wilkes County Library at 5:30 p.m. Monday.
There were 1,208 slaves in Wilkes County in 1860, said Wendy Barber, with the library and organizer for the program, titled “Down Through the Years: History of African-Americans in Wilkes.”
Luther Parks, said his grandfather, George Washington Petty, was sold on the slave block to people in Texas when he was eight years old. He had lived with his family in Wilkes until then. He was around 20 when the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in the U.S. in 1863 and returned home to a prodigal son’s welcome, said Parks.
He led the group in singing several spirituals such as “Sometime I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
“When he was away from home, I imagine my grandfather had many moments when he felt like a motherless child,” said Parks.
He remembers his mother talking about her father. “Our ancestors had tough lives. When my mother didn’t know what was going to happen she would sing. She always encouraged us to do our best.”
Parks said he thanks God regularly for the changes made for African-Americans.
“One hundred years ago, we could not hold a program such as this,” said Parks, the first African-American county commissioner in Wilkes.
Anne Watkins, a descendant of Judith Barber, spoke about the impact of her ancestor in Wilkes. She was born in 1820 in Yadkin County and brought to Wilkes as a slave by Richard W. Barber.
“She was a head cook, laundress, entertainer for children and more for the Barber family,” said Mrs. Watkins.
In the community, “Mammy Judith Barber,” as she was known, was a midwife and trained her daughters with home remedies for croup, hives, poison oak and more.
“Mammy Judith Barber” had 13 daughters, with nine living to adulthood. They had a house in what is now Highland Park, said Mrs. Watkins.
She was very progressive and encouraged education,” said Mrs. Watkins. One of Richard Barber’s daughters taught her to read.
Mammy Barber is listed, along with “three other slaves as being confirmed at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church,” said Mrs. Watkins. Later she was among organizers for the first black church in Wilkes, Damascus Baptist on Noisy Branch off Old 60.
She died at age 92 in 1912, leaving behind nine daughters, 43 grandchildren, and many great-great grandchildren.
Robin Whittington spoke about her mother, Lilly Barber, a poet and public speaker. She was a descendant of Mammy Judith Barber and was a co-author of “Treasure Trove,” on Mammy Judith Barber. She also helped to organize the annual Barber Reunion, said Mrs. Whittington.
Music was important to Lilly Barber and at age 78, she joined the Mass Choir, along with her granddaughters and daughter. She was 93 years old when she passed, said Mrs. Whittington.
Ms. Barber and Brenda Dobbins talked about the importance of Lincoln Heights Schools and its teachers. Kaye Lomax spoke about Elizabeth Grinton, a teacher at Lincoln Heights School, and her love for the community and her family. She was also a descendant of “Mammy Judith Barber.”
Lincoln Heights was the only high school in northwestern North Carolina where African-Americans could earn a high school diploma. Students came from all over Wilkes, Ashe, Watauga and Surry.
“The school’s motto was opportunity through education. No children excelled more than those who attended Lincoln Heights School,” said Ms. Barber.
The doors opened in 1921 through funding provided by Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington. Earlier schools for blacks in Wilkes included Noisy Branch on Old 60 and the Academy, with one school near Damascus Church in Wilkesboro and one in Fairplains.
There were 25 elementary schools for African–Americans in Wilkes, said Ms. Barber.
“Lincoln Heights was a vital part of the everyday life of its people,” said Ms. Barber. “There was a feeling of great loss when the school was discontinued.”
Mrs. Dobbins remembered especially Lincoln Heights homecoming parades that went down Main Street, North Wilkesboro, the Sweetheart Ball and many teachers.
Ms. Barber also discussed the civil rights movement in Wilkes. “As in the rest of the nation, restaurants in Wilkes would not serve African-Americans in the same area as whites. Several Wilkes teens decided to demand that Jim Crow legislation end.
“Debbie Lomax Coles, Micheline Lomax and others entered Horton’s Drugs store and took seats designated for whites. They asked to be served ice cream cones. When they were asked to leave, they refused,” said Ms. Coles.
“Mr. Horton did not contact the authorities, but did contact Debbie and Micheline’s father, who worked on Main Street. The demonstration ended peacefully, but this was just the beginning of Civil Rights in Wilkes.”
An attempt to integrate Smoot Park was also made in the 1960s. African Americans were only allowed to go to the park on Monday and had to swim in the water that was left, which was dirty, said Ms. Barber.
“Several African Americans decided to go to Smoot Park on a Tuesday, a day that was for whites only. The police were called and the pool was drained so the African Americans could not get into the water,” said Ms. Barber.
“But just as in the rest of the country, African Americans in Wilkes were standing their ground against segregation and Jim Crow laws,” said Ms. Barber.
Other speakers included Paul Robinson, Louise Chapman and Blaine Lomax.
Robinson spoke about his uncle, Willie R. Simmons, who performed on Broadway and worked for the United Nations in security.
Mrs. Chapman spoke about her niece, Deneen Graham, who was the first African-American to be crowned Miss North Carolina in 1983.
Lomax talked about the NAACP and the charter that is in Wilkes County. He also spoke about voter rights and the importance of being informed and getting involved.
Darren Connor was unable to be at the program, but contributed the information about the first schools for African Americans and the Rosenwald School Funds for Lincoln Heights High School.
The program was inspired by the Save Our Wilkes County History: African-Americans in Wilkes County videos, which were produced by Wilkes Community College and North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
It was held to celebrate Black History Month, which is observed in February.