In the South during the Civil War, most African Americans were not allowed to receive an education. With the help of a government agency, missionaries and others, African Americans were able to establish schools for “freed people”. Education was not only a way for them to improve their lives but it was a symbolic step away from slavery.
During the reconstruction period, the federal Bureau of Refugees and Abandoned Lands, nicknamed the Freedman’s Bureau, used their authority to provide buildings for the schools.
The Freedman’s Bureau, missionaries and African Americans provided funding for the schools. Many white female teachers came from the north with missionary groups to teach in the schools.
One such school still exists in Smithfield and is believed to be one of only three left in existence in the United States.
Susan Hayes, a young white teacher from Maine, who worked for the American Missionary Association based in New York, purchased the lot where First Missionary Baptist Church is now located and had the school house built by the Freedman’s Bureau in 1869. It was later moved to its present location at 308 North Fourth Street and was used as a school house for African Americans until 1913.
Todd Johnson, Executive Director of the Johnston County Heritage Center said the former school building was renovated many years ago to a residential home. Now the rush is on the save the historic building.
Johnson said the property owners are in the process of selling the lot and the prospective buyer doesn’t want the building. The Heritage Center is working on a plan to have the house moved to a lot near the John Thomas Cemetery, next to Talton Field. Johnson is working with the Town of Smithfield to try and identify who owns the cemetery.
If the home can be acquired and eventually moved, funding would be needed to pay for the move, renovation and upkeep.
Johnson said the house has national significance as one of the last surviving Freedmen’s Bureau schoolhouses in the nation.
“According to the staff at North Carolina’s state preservation office in Raleigh, it may very well be the only one left in North Carolina,” Johnson told WTSB News. “Smithfield does not need to lose this rare piece of history.” Photo courtesy Johnston County Heritage Center