by Susan Taylor Block
Four years ago, when my brother and I spent three poignant months cleaning out our parents’ house, I discovered a fragile slip of paper that amazed me. It is a receipt issued by the Gregory Institute of Wilmington, in 1892. The student’s name is noted as Prince Smith.
Gregory Institute operated as a school for blacks from 1868 until 1921. The American Missionary Association, in close alignment with several Congregational Church communities, founded the school, along with others in North Carolina, in an effort to correct the longtime lack of quality education for minorities. The Association named it in honor of James J. H. Gregory, of Marblehead, Massachusetts, who underwrote building costs for not only the school, but also a teachers’ residence, and Gregory Congregational Church.
Gregory was a seedsman who also contributed to library programs and projects that would not only encourage reading, but teach it to African Americans. The Wilmington Gregory campus was located on the 600 block Nun Street. The church still stands, complete with the bell Mr. Gregory had had inscribed with the words, “The North to the South, in Sympathy and Love.”
I didn’t know of any connection between my family and Gregory Institute, and I was not familiar with the name, Prince Smith – but I liked it, and the bonding of the names. Prince, as a first name, is quite rare – and Smith, as a surname, soaks up much more than its share of phonebook printing ink. I wondered if the young man had been named Prince at birth, either through his parents’ ambition, or from having an ancestor who was a real African prince. Was it a nickname he acquired because of his carriage, general demeanor, or his accomplishments?
At my parents’ house, the receipt had been filed with images and papers having to do with the Hills, my maternal grandfather’s family. The Hills were hard working folks of modest means who lived in Dry Pond, so I could not figure the connection. A dollar was a lot of money in those days, and my great-grandfather, Owen Hill, had lots of dependents at the time. Did he give a whole dollar just to educate someone else’s child? I hoped so. http://susantaylorblock.com/2012/12/08/the-hills-of-queen-street/
So many questions, with no one left to give a quick answer. My beloved Grandmother Hill, who saved everything of note, had been dead for 25 years, and my mother had not shared our interest in family history – and history in general.
What to do? What to do? I decided to simply file it away as “Prince Smith.” Something might come along one day that would shed some light. Well, yesterday, a penlight of illumination arrived in the form of “Back Then,” a column compiled and notated by Star News writer, Scott Nunn, of Wilmington. He pulled this quote from a hundred-year old newspaper: “Sheriff S. P. Cowan went to Castle Hanes (Haynes) to get Prince Smith, who stabbed Dave Smith Saturday night a week ago but learned that his man was hiding in the fastnesses of Pender County.”
“How could you, Prince?” I thought, with a bit of the anger and disappointment a doting aunt might feel. Especially after the experience of being a student at the Gregory Institute, where discipline was strict and punishment was severe. Yet, on average, only one pupil per year was sentenced to expulsion.
(…to be continued)
Annual Report of the American Missionary Association, 1896. (This report indicates that Mr. Woodard was still principal. Teachers included: Julia Condict, Adrian, Michigan; Susan Marsh, Massachusetts; Lucy Fairbanks, Woodstock, Vermont; Ella Smith Ably, Michigan; Alma Crane, Schenectady, New York; Minnis Strout, Salem, Massachusetts; Ellen Hanson, Oberlin; Susan Breck, Lawrence, Kansas; Florence Gough, Grand Rapids; Mary Bennett, North Rochester.)
The Negro Church: Report of a Social Study made under the Direction of Atlanta University; together with the Proceedings of the Eighth Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems, held at Atlanta University, May 26, 1903. Edited by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois