FOR THE DAILY SOUTHERNER
C. Rudolph Knight
When Walter Alexander Pattillo came to Tarboro 1912, he joined an established educational system that was already serving the black community. Building on that foundation, he developed a comprehensive union school (first grade through twelfth grade) for the area blacks.
Public education was slow in developing in Edgecombe County. Turner and Bridgers, in their History of Edgecombe County North Carolina (1920), describe private education efforts beginning well before the Revolutionary War and continuing into the 20th century. While North Carolina created the common school system in 1840, Edgecombe County did not participate until 1854. Public education came to a virtual standstill during the Civil War and was slow to recover following the war.
During this time, public education in Edgecombe County was intended for white students, although it is possible, but unlikely, that an occasional free black may have benefitted, too.
In 1867 the American Missionary Association, together with St. Paul AME Zion Church, established a school for negro children. At the same time, a second school for negro children was established, also with support from a northern charitable organization, on an unidentified plantation near Tarboro.
Free (common) schools had returned to Edgecombe County by the late 1870s, and by 1879 there were 28 white schools and 44 negro schools. During this period Negro schools were erected in Princeville, Battleboro, Whitakers, and elsewhere in the county.
The concept of free graded schools, to replace the common schools, gained support throughout North Carolina, and, in 1883, the Number 1 Township of Edgecombe County voted to raise taxes in support of a pair of graded schools, one for white children in Tarboro and a second for black children in Princeville.
The Board of Trustees members for the Princeville school were John C. Dancy, H. C. Cherry, Victor E. Howard, Benjamin Norfleet, Edward Zoella, Henry S. Spragins, and W. H. Knight. (Dancy, Cherry, and Howard were black.) In 1888, W. P. Mabson, a graduate of Lincoln College (now Lincoln University), was employed as Principal of the Princeville School. He was succeeded in 1899 by John Craven Jones, a graduate of Oberlin College, and in 1907 by William Augustine Perry, a native of Tarboro and a graduate of Yale University. Under the tutelage of Perry the school graduated its first eighth-grade class in 1909. During his administration, the school population doubled in size and the school building was enlarged into a two-story facility with an auditorium.
In 1912, Walter Alexander Pattillo succeeded Perry, coming from Oxford, North Carolina. As principal of the Princeville Graded School, he began adding high school courses to the curriculum. In 1924, the Tarboro Colored High School was erected in East Tarboro, and Pattillo became its first principal. He continued to be a strong force in Tarboro public education until his retirement in 1946.
The Tarboro Colored High School building was a Rosenwald school. Located east of East Street between E. Wilson and E. St. John Streets, the two-story brick structure was classified as an eight-teacher school. The auditorium portion, added soon after, was financed by four private black citizens from the East Tarboro community. The building was demolished in the early 1970s.
W. A. Pattillo was born May 18, 1876 in Virgilina, Virginia, a small town on the North Carolina border about 20 miles northwest of Oxford, North Carolina. He was the fourth son of the fourteen children born to the Rev. W. A. and Mrs. Mary Ida Hart Pattillo. [The Rev. Pattillo, born into slavery, was active as a populist, advocated improved economic condition, and established the Colored Orphanage Asylum in Oxford in 1882.]
After graduating in 1901 from Shaw University with a degree in theology, W. A. Pattillo served as principal of the Oxford Graded School for ten years. In 1912 he accepted an appointment to the position of principal of the Princeville school, and he and his family moved to Tarboro where they took up residence at 520 St. James Street.
On February 14, 1901, W. A. Pattillo was married to Sallie Jeanette Watson of Henderson, North Carolina. Four children were born to this union: Walter Hugh Pattillo, Anna Mae Pattillo Murdaugh, William Charles Pattillo, and Harold Claudius Pattillo. Each followed their father and mother, attending and graduating from Shaw University. Walter Hugh succeeded his father as principal of the W. A. Pattillo High School on his father’s retirement in 1946. Anna Mae married and lived with her husband in Atlanta, Georgia, assisting him in his mortuary business. William Charles taught school at Pattillo High School and was also a free-lance muralist. Harold Claudius taught public school and lived in Montclair, New Jersey.
W. A. Pattillo joined Union Baptist Church and, for twenty years, served as both deacon and clerk of the church. At the same time, he was a member of the Old Eastern Missionary Baptist Association of which Union Baptist Church was an affiliate. He is remembered as having required that each of the teachers in his employ at the Pattillo High School attend Sunday school and Sunday church services every week at Union Baptist Church.
During his lifetime, Mr. Pattillo was a Mason, an Oddfellow, a Knight of Pythias, and a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. He was also active in civic affairs, serving as a member of the City Recreational Committee and as the president of the Edgecombe Credit Union.
In 1943, he was honored by having the Tarboro Colored High School renamed the W. A. Pattillo High School. The first class to graduate with this new name was the class of 1944. The class of 1949 further honored him by dedicating their school annual yearbook to him and by erecting a brick wall and marble arch in front of the school and having hewn into the stone of the archway, overhead, “W. A. Pattillo High School.”
At the time of his death in 1951, he was survived by his wife and children and two grandchildren, Leatrice P. Terry and Dr. Walter Hugh Pattillo, Jr. (Professor Emeritus in Biology, North Carolina Central University, and currently living in Durham, North Carolina).
C. Rudolph Knight is a Tarboro native, a retired community college educator, and a research historian. Look for his monthly reports on Edgecombe County’s African-American history on The Daily Southerner Community page.
History of Edgecombe County, North Carolina, by J. Kelly Turner and Jno. L. Bridgers, Jr. (1920)
New Journal and Guide, November 24, 1951.
Oxford Public Ledger, March 28, 2002.
Personal interview with Dr. W. H. Pattillo, Jr.