LUMBERTON — As Carletta Thompson honored her great-grandfather on Friday, she stood in a spot where the Rev. Alexander H. Thompson could very well have stood 133 years before.
According to Carletta, her great-grandfather was the founder and namesake of Robeson County’s first accredited high school, the Thompson Institute, a single building where W.H. Knuckles Elementary stands today. It was built to educate blacks in the post-Civil Era.
Along with a crowd of about 20 supporters and relatives, many of whom’s parents or grandparents graduated from the Thompson Institute, Carletta unveiled a plaque inscribed with Alexander Thompson’s name and photograph of the school to be hung on the wall.
The Thompson Institute was renamed South Lumberton Elementary School in 1950 and became W. H. Knuckles Elementary School in 1994.
Carletta and Rep. Garland Pierce, who was also in attendance, feel Thompson had such a great effect on the history of Robeson County, they are asking the state to erect a historical site marker in front of W.H. Knuckles.
“I really, really think if anybody deserves a state marker, he does,” Carletta said.
Carletta said she submitted one request already, but was told the school did not have a statewide legacy. She and Pierce argue that students who graduated from the school and became teachers moved all over the state.
“It was up to the eighth grade and if you graduated from the eighth grade you’d go out and teach. It was more like a college,” Carletta said.
Pierce said he and members of the Thompson family are trying to find people who knew graduates of the Thompson Institute. Pierce represents District 48, which includes includes parts of Robeson County.
“It’s important what they’re doing today so that generations yet unborn know the significance of this school and this family and I think they did a little bit of that here in Robeson County today,” Pierce said. “I think that historic marker would really define and keep alive the history of this family.”
But for Carletta, just seeing other descendants of her great-grandfather at the ceremony was significant enough. She hadn’t yet met a few who were in attendance.
“I’m trying to meet as many as I can,” Carletta said. “I really want to know where my roots are.”
Carletta has been dilligently researching those roots since 1991.
Born a slave in 1828, Alexander Thompson was told by his master that if he ever found out Alexander could read and write, his children would be sold into slavery. Late in life, Carletta said he would continue to sign documents, like his will, with an ‘X’ as if he could not write his name.
After he was freed following the Civil War, Thompson went on to establish five churches and ultimately the Lumber River Missionary Baptist Association in 1877, which founded the Thompson Institute just four years later.
“The Lumber River Baptist Association knew what kind of person he was and I think that’s why they appointed him as leader,” Carletta said.
Alexander died in 1911 and the next year, the Rev. William H. Knuckles became principal of the school, a position he held for 30 years, according to research done by Carletta.
In addition to the plaque, Carletta also provided the school with a portrait of her great-grandfather.
“We knew a young lady who remembered her father taking the picture to a Rev. Turner and telling Rev. Turner not to lose it because it was the only one and he wanted it back,” Carletta said. “Rev. Turner never got the picture back to him.”
The unlabelled portrait was found behind a filing cabinet on the floor of the Lumber River Missionary Baptist Association last year.
“They didn’t know who it was,” Carletta said.
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-272-6127