DARE COUNTY, N.C. (WAVY) — Northeastern North Carolina is full of rich history, from understanding the path those took to escape slavery through the Great Dismal Swamp, to seeing the desks young children once sat in the oldest African American school in the state.
It’s why nine counties teamed up to create the African American Experience of Northeast North Carolina.
It’s a way to build a deeper understanding of the region’s cultural heritage and to showcase the stories of those who worked to break down barriers and discover newfound freedom.
One of the stops? The Historic Jarvisburg Colored School.
The small wooden desks there hold a front-row seat to history.
“All the teachers were so caring and just passionate about the teaching they did,” said Dorothy “Dot” Johnson.
The Jarvisburg Colored School opened to students in 1868.
A freed slave, William B. Hunt, donated the land a few years prior because he wanted a place for black kids to go to school.
It’s a rare example of a pre-Rosenwald African American School and it served many families, like Dot Johnson’s.
“Because of this school and the foundation and my legacy, I am what I am today,” said Johnson.
The school was the only establishment dedicated to African American students until the early 1900s.
Children of all different levels were taught on the same floor until the second floor was added in 1911.
“It was actually, you might say, the beginning of the roots of education for a lot of colored kids,” said William Jarvis.
“It’s just great significance for me and the community and everyone who knows it,” said Leon Saunders.
Eight years later, Currituck County received the first of three Rosenwald schools that would eventually serve children there.
By 1950, Currituck Union opened and that’s where Dot, William Jarvis and Leon Saunders attended and graduated together in 1964.
After that school opened, this building was turned into a community center.
“This building represents fun and happy times,” said Jarvis.
Happy Times and a lot of history and a bell that could be heard for miles.
It brings a smile to Angerona Moore-Saunders’ face. Her brother and sister had to walk six miles to get here to go to school.
“The parents knew exactly how long it took you to get there and how long it take you to get back,” said Moore-Saunders.
Saunders grew up on a farm nearby.
They had peanuts, cotton, potatoes, beans and more.
She says she remembers helping tend to the farm before and after class, and even though a lot of lessons were learned there, Angerona’s mom continuously stressed the importance of getting an education.
“She wanted us to have a better life, better education than what they had and she really stressed that we do that,” said Moore-Saunders.
The Historic Jarvisburg Colored School is now part of the Northeast North Carolina African American Experience.
The self-guided, digital heritage trail features monuments, parks, waterways and museums throughout the area.
“It was an idea that was brought forth in 2020-2021 to band our sites together and collectively as a whole market these sites and encourage exploration of these sites to tell the rich history that we have here in Northeastern North Carolina,” said Dismal Swamp Welcome Center Director Sarah Hill.
In nearby Manteo, you can learn the history of Lieutenant Herbert Collins, the last keeper of the Pea Island Life Saving Station, America’s only all-black Life Saving Station.
Or the journey to freedom for slaves through the Great Dismal Swamp!
Collectively between nine counties, there are more than 30 sites.
“History is very important,” said Hill. “This showcases maybe unknown pieces of history and it shines a spotlight on our African American sites.”
Learning more about the path those before us took to bring us to where we are today.
“We need to learn history at its truest form and I think this school represents that,” said Jarvis.
The African American Experience of Northeast North Carolina Website has suggested itineraries, or you can create your own self-guided trail to explore some of the different sites.