The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

January 16, 2012

Remembering history

A look back into the creation of Tarboro’s first African American church

Staff Writer
Mayah Collins

TARBORO — The Emancipation Proclamation was issued Jan. 1, 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln. With the newfound freedom of slaves, during the brink of conflict with the American Civil War, many were able to connect with a world of opportunity. Education and worship were a few of these opportunities according to Lovie Rooks, retired Edgecombe County educator and Tarboro native.

"The Civil War ended in 1865 and this is around the time that blacks got their freedom," said Rooks. "Prior to that, many of them wouldn't have had an opportunity to go to school, but this is one of the new things that came about in the Reconstruction period and the community really took advantage of this opportunity."

Rooks attends St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church, the oldest established African American church in the historic town of Tarboro. This church later opened the doors for the "first school for blacks in Edgecombe County," Tarboro Colored Institute.

"In the beginning, there was no church in Tarboro for black people to worship, so they worshiped at the home of George and Agnes Caine on Church Street," said Rooks. "The membership grew and eventually the house was too small, so the members decided that they would build a church. At that point, some of the members decided that they wanted to be Baptist and some wanted to be Methodist. So this is why we have two St. Paul churches in Tarboro (St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church and St. Paul A.M.E Zion Church)."   

Following the Civil War, African Americans adapted as free people with the help of black church leaders as well as Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal organization that helped freedmen establish schools, purchase land and more according to www.archives.gov.

St. Paul A.M.E. Zion Church was established the fourth Sunday in March the year of 1866, one year after the Civil War ended. The church was located on the corner of Granville and St. David Street in Tarboro. Three years later, members of the church built the Tarboro Colored Institute, an American Missionary Association School.

"Members of St. Paul A.M.E. Zion Church were mostly skilled laborers like carpenters and brick masons, but most of all, these people had a very keen interest in education for blacks," said Rooks.

When the school was built next to the church, Robert Taylor became the first teacher. He reported an enrollment of 30 students in 1870 according to Rooks. Later under the leadership of John C. Dancy (principle and teacher), 300 students were reported to have attended the Tarboro Colored Institute.

The teachers were dedicated to teaching their students and took education as a top priority according to Rooks.  

"Sometimes, people had to work on the farms, so they had to make compromises," said Rooks. "I understand that the teachers even sometimes taught at night, because the students had to work during the day time. Taylor himself was available for the times that students could learn."

Years later, the 134 year old "Roman influenced edifice" was flooded out September of 1999 by Hurricane Floyd. February of 2002, the church was torn down because it was beyond repair due to deterioration. It is now located at 1811 West Wilson Street after being built in 10 days (ending June 22, 2008) with the help of over 100 volunteers including Meshach Carpenters.

According to Rooks, the legacy of the school and church is important because it is a piece of Edgecombe County's history. Although she does not exactly know about the longevity of the Tarboro Colored Institute, a marker has been placed for its memory.

"November 2002, the church erected the St. Paul A.M.E. Zion Historical Site to preserve, share and pass to future generations the history of the church and Tarboro Colored Institute," Rooks said.

The historical site is located on the southeast corner of Granville and St. David Street, the same location where the church once made history nearly 146 years ago.