Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore: Establishing African American Rural Schools in North Carolina

Dr. Aaron Moore’s efforts were responsible for dramatically improving literacy among African Americans and creating an educational system that uplifted generations of African Americans residing in rural North Carolina communities. Thanks to him, over 800 Rosenwald Schools were built in North Carolina. An exhibit about one such school, “The Historic Russell School: Durham’s Last Rosenwald,” is on display at the History Hub until December 31, 2015.

By Sherri Holmes & C. Eileen Watts Welch

Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore’s contributions to society were broad, centering on his life’s philosophy of self sufficiency, hard work and helping others less fortunate to have better opportunities. Born in 1863, moving to Durham in 1888, he set up a medical practice. Between then and his death in 1923 he founded, or partnered to establish, more than ten businesses and institutions. Some of these are still viable businesses such as the NC Mutual Life Insurance Company, several financial businesses of which Mechanics and Farmers Bank (now M&F Bank) continues to thrive and North Carolina Central University. Other institutions served Durham’s African American community throughout the Jim Crow days and included the original Lincoln Hospital & Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing.

In 1913 he founded the Durham Colored Library (DCL, Inc.) which today continues his mission of lifting up stories about African Americans to create a more comprehensive picture of the American experience. One of the publications the library produces is the Merrick Washington Magazine for the visually impaired (originally named The Negro Braille Magazine). His daughter, Lyda Vivian Moore Merrick, followed in her father’s footsteps of service and launched the magazine in 1952. She avowed, “My father passed a torch to me I have never let go out. We are blessed to serve.”

Following the Civil War nearly 90% of African Americans lived in the South. After almost 250 years of prohibiting teaching African Americans to read, most southern whites had no intention of investing in the education of African American children. There were numerous northern philanthropists who stepped in and addressed this significant problem. In 1892 John Fox Slater, a textile manufacturer from Norwich, CT, established a foundation with an initial donation of $1 million. Its sole purpose was “uplifting of the lately emancipated population of the southern states, their posterity, by conferring on them the blessing of a Christian education.” Several influential political and educational leaders joined the Slater Fund’s board which helped support the establishment of hundreds of schools in the South.

In 1907 a Quaker named Anna Jeanes donated $1 million to create “The Fund for Rudimentary Schools for Southern Negroes.” Their board of trustees included several notable figures including Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee University. The funds were used to develop a network of African American educators who traveled throughout the South to oversee instruction for African American children. They became known as “Jeanes Teachers” or “Jeanes Supervisors.” They also led fundraising efforts, arranged healthcare, offered adult education and even started land co-ops to enable sharecroppers to purchase their own land. The motto of the Jeanes teachers was “Do the next needed thing.”

Ida Daniel Dark, D.M.A., is the current secretary of the board of directors for the Durham Colored Library. In the 1950s her mother, Leona B. Daniel, was a Jeanes Supervisor and her father, John T. Daniel, Sr., was the Pender County Training School Principal in Rocky Point, NC, whose campus housed several Rosenwald buildings. Dr. Dark remembers her mother traveling throughout the area to work with teachers in the rural schools. Her mother developed annual competitions to encourage teachers to ensure their students were able to meet the educational standards.

In 1912, Booker T. Washington approached Julius Rosenwald, son of German-Jewish immigrants and Sears, Roebuck and Company President, about improving education for African Americans in the South. At the time, Rosenwald was serving on the board of trustees of Tuskegee Institute and became committed to uplifting African Americans. In 1917 Rosenwald declared, “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecutions that they have suffered and still suffer.” Rosenwald first agreed to fund six, small schools in Alabama. Eventually his program was expanded as he financed over 5,300 schools, shops and teachers’ homes in 15 states.

In order to receive a Rosenwald grant, communities were required to raise matching funds and the school boards had to purchase the land, as well as provide teachers with salaries and supervision. According to historian Joanne Abel, “The African American community was doubly taxed. Once for their regular taxes and then they provided additional funds, as well as contributed labor and materials.” To build the schools, communities were given blueprints and strict requirements for construction. Inspectors ensured that they met the standards. The schools were designed by William A. Hazel, head of Tuskegee Institute’s architectural and mechanical drawing division; George Washington Carver, Tuskegee’s noted agricultural scientist; and Robert Taylor, professor of architecture at Tuskegee. The Rosenwald buildings were considered to be state of the art.

Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore was born on a farm in Elkton, NC. He experienced first-hand inadequacies of education for African Americans when he attended a rural school in Rosindale, NC. Dr. Moore developed a profound appreciation for education and later spent three years teaching at the same school he had attended. He then decided to further his education by entering the Whittin Normal School in Lumberton, NC. The following year he attended the Normal School in Fayetteville, NC. Unfortunately, Dr. Moore was forced to leave school each year to assist with planting and harvesting season, but he still maintained his passion for learning.

In 1885 Dr. Moore enrolled at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC, intending to become a professor. While there he learned of the desperate need for African American physicians and the school officials encouraged him to attend its new Leonard Medical College. He completed the four-year program in three years and was ranked second among the mixed racial group being tested when he passed the North Carolina Medical Board. Despite changing the direction of his career, Dr. Moore continued to dedicate his life to educating his community.

When he heard about the Rosenwald funds, most likely from his friend Booker T. Washington, Dr. Moore became determined to obtain funding to construct school buildings for African Americans in North Carolina. Up until that time there were no Rosenwald schools in North Carolina and few, rural schools for African Americans. Those schools which existed were in poor condition. In order to improve the quality of education, he also decided an appeal should be made to the Slater and Jeanes Foundations.

Dr. Moore knew it was critical to first document the current problems. He paid the salary for the state’s first inspector, George W. Davis, for African American rural schools and worked with the State’s Education Department to provide direction and support. The inspector noted the terrible conditions of the school buildings, the poorly educated teachers earning extremely low salaries, dilapidated furnishings, short school terms, poor student attendance and insufficient resources.

Additionally, Dr. Moore was able to obtain support for North Carolina from Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald. He also took on the task of raising thousands of dollars from an African American community which was already struggling. Dr. Moore needed enough financial support to not only match the Rosenwald funds, but to supplement the salaries of the Jeanes Supervisors. He encouraged the community to strive to meet the requirements of providing the labor and materials to build the schools, as well as to increase the amount of time their children attended school. This was a sacrifice because children were needed to help on their family farms. However, in order to receive funding, the children were required to spend an additional two months in school.

Dr. Moore held a series of community meetings for African Americans throughout the state. He informed the families about their rights as citizens, as well as provided them with documentation showing the disparity between white and African American children’s education. He also alerted them about the sacrifices necessary to improve their children’s quality of education. Dr. Moore wrote a powerful tract, Negro Rural School Problem. Condition–Remedy; the following is an excerpt:

“The biggest thing that we can do, and this seems to me to be our mission, is to empty our lives and character into our children, thereby making them better and wiser citizens than we are, or had the opportunity to be … There is much that we can do and must do for ourselves, and we call upon, every teacher, preacher, farmer and business man to arouse themselves, and “‘Let us reason together.’”

Over time Dr. Moore gained robust backing from the North Carolina Teachers’ Association (formed by Black educators in 1881). The relationship he developed with the association was so strong they made him treasurer; a position he maintained for several years. Dr. Moore drew upon every political and personal contact he knew in order to obtain sponsorship for the cause.

He also took on the seemingly insurmountable task of convincing the North Carolina State Legislature to expand funding for the education of African Americans. By the time Dr. Moore made his case to state legislators he had documentation of the issues and he had support from the Rosenwald, Slater and Jeanes resources. He also had funding and backing from the African American community. Allies from some white community leaders and support from many North Carolina educators, including the state superintendent, bolstered his plan.

Ultimately, Dr. Moore’s initiative worked. Thanks to him, North Carolina constructed over 800 Rosenwald school buildings, more than any other state in the country. North Carolina had 36 Jeanes supervising teachers which was also more than any other state. Dr. Moore’s efforts were responsible for dramatically improving literacy among African Americans and creating an educational system which uplifted the community.

After the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, North Carolina communities began the process of consolidating their county and city school systems; however, continuing to operate “racially separate” schools. This led to the closing of many Rosenwald schools. Many subsequent generations of rural African Americans better understood the benefits of obtaining an education for themselves and their children. All because of the seeds planted by the teachers, Jeanes supervisors, Rosenwald schools facilities and – in North Carolina – the man who made it all possible, Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore.

Originally published in the Merrick Washington Magazine- Summer 2015

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