The first college for African Americans in Edgecombe County was The Joseph Keasbey Brick School and Junior College which operated from 1895-1933. The school stood on the former Estes plantation, located three miles south of Enfield. Thomas Sewall Inborden was the first Principal and served from 1895-1926. His history of the school describes some of the events that lead to the founding of the school.
Toward the end of the Civil War, General Oliver O. Howard was sent south to join Sherman’s siege of Atlanta. After the siege was over and Sherman marched to the sea, the Union forces turned north. General Howard’s regiment came by Fayetteville and Raleigh, while other armies took other routes. General I. G. Estes took a more easterly route, passing through eastern North Carolina, touching New Bern, Kinston, and Rocky Mount. When he came to the northern edge of Edgecombe County, he is said to have remarked that he liked this particular location so well that, after the war, he would come back and buy a farm.
After the war, General Howard was appointed head of the Freedmen’s Bureau and later became the first president of Howard University in Washington, D.C. General Estes did return to North Carolina and bought a large (1,129 ? acres) farm, formerly owned by Paul, Charles, and Joe Garrett and then by Mason Wiggins. The farm’s reputation prior to the Civil War was as a place where unruly slaves were “broken.” While Estes was well regarded as a general, he was not successful as a farmer. Deeply in debt, he persuaded Mrs. Joseph Keasby Brewster-Brick of Brooklyn, New York, to lend him money. When he could not repay the loans, Mrs. Brick took title to the property.
Some years later, Mrs. Brick was inspired when she heard William A. Sinclair, a graduate of Fisk University and a financial agent for Howard University, speak at the Clinton Avenue Congregational Church in Brooklyn. She proposed that she would like to have Howard University open a school for poor colored children on her North Carolina farm. After negotiating with Mr. Sinclair and General Howard, she was referred to the American Missionary Association.
The American Missionary Association was founded in 1846 with four purposes: to abolish slavery, to educate African Americans, to promote racial equality, and to promote Christian values. The association, chiefly aligned with Congregationalist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, founded more than 500 schools and colleges in the South.
After some negotiations, Mrs. Brick and the American Missionary Association came to an agreement in which she donated the farm to the Association. She also contributed $5,000 and another 300 acres of land to be sold and the proceeds put into an endowment. The school was named for her late husband, Joseph Keasbey Brick.
Thomas Sewall Inborden was appointed principal, and he was joined by five other teachers. The school opened on October 1, 1895, with a single student. By the end of the year 54 students were enrolled, including 13 boarders. Later, the school’s highest enrollment was 460 students, 260 of whom were boarders.
Mrs. Brick died eight years after the school opened. At the time of her death, she had invested about $150,000 in the school.
Beginning as a common or primary school, the initial curriculum was very practical, following the thinking of Booker T. Washington which was reinforced by Mrs. Brick who was primarily interested in colored people learning how to do things with their hands.
Over time, the curriculum expanded to include a liberal arts education as well as instruction in agriculture, domestic science, and manual arts. In 1925, the Brick School became a junior college, offering majors in arts and science, pre-medicine, and teaching. When the school closed in 1933, it was accredited by the Southern Association of College and Schools.
The Brick School owed much to Thomas Sewell Inborden. Liberally educated, he had attended Oberlin Academy and had graduated from Fisk University. Before coming to the Brick School as principal, he had served as a pastor of a church in Beaufort, North Carolina, and had headed an American Missionary Association school in Helena, Arkansas. On his retirement in 1926, he became principal emeritus.
After the school’s closure in 1933, the property remained in the hands of the American Missionary Association which had become closely aligned with the Congregational Christian Churches, most of which are members of the United Church of Christ. In a 1999 restructuring, the American Missionary Association was merged into the United Church of Christ’s Justice and Witness Ministries division. The former school grounds are now the Franklinton Center at Bricks, a conference, retreat, and educational facility.
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 Community page.