north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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Essay:
     It has long been known that the first public school in the state opened in Rockingham County on January 20, 1840. That fact is cited in several textbooks. Less well known is the basis for this claim and especially difficult to determine is where that school was located in the county. The Common Law of 1839 authorized counties to hold elections in which voters might vote for or against taxes for public schools. In elections in late 1839 sixty-one of sixty-eight counties voted to support school taxes. The remaining seven counties soon followed course. By 1846 every county had at least one public school.

     Notice of the opening of the Rockingham school appeared February 1, 1840, in the Greensborough Patriot and was reprinted the same month in the Raleigh Standard. The article indicated that the “first free school in Rockingham County went into operation on the 20th of January 1840.” Further, it stated that “this is probably the first free school commenced in the State.” The story did not specify the location of the school but did indicate that the county had been divided up into districts with houses to be completed and schools in operation in each “in a short time.”

     Tradition has it that the first school was located in the present Williamsburg community in the southeastern part of Rockingham County. Some accounts even refer to the “Williamsburg School.” Since the community was known by other names as late as 1960, the reference appears to be ill-founded. However, support may be found for the claim that the general vicinity was the site of an early school. Deeds drafted in April and December 1840 transferred ownership of one acre from local parties to the Literary Fund for the “advancement of education and promotion of common schools.” The tracts were in the general area of Hogan’s Creek north of the Williamsburg community. It is impossible, with the available documentation, to fix precisely the location of the first school cited in the newspaper account but local tradition strongly supports the general vicinity of the site.


References:
Hugh T. Lefler and Albert Ray Newsome, The History of a Southern State: North Carolina (1973)
Greensborough Patriot, February 1, 1840
Literary Fund Minutes, North Carolina State Archives
Rockingham County Deeds, North Carolina State Archives
Rockingham County Minutes of the Superintendent of Common Schools, North Carolina State Archives
William S. Powell, North Carolina Gazetteer (1968)
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north carolina highway historical marker program


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